THE MERMAID OF BLACK CONCH, by Monique Roffey
Off the coast of Black Conch, an imagined island in the Caribbean, in 1976 two American white men and a crew of black island sailors hook a mermaid and wrestle her out of the water. Nearly all sailors experience a deep unease, “a sense of blasphemy,” at the capture: “So close, she was terrifying, a person there, no doubt; a captive and dying woman.” The mermaid Aycayia – huge, wounded, furious, extremely vulnerable, “creeping with sea lice” – brings out powerful impulses in the men: harming, possessing, touching, marking her, despite or even because of the hatred in her “aluminium foil eyes.” This violent, enchanting scene begins with ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’, indicating the ambition of the book.Monique Roffey’s sixth novel is a fairy tale: the mermaid sheds her tail, regains her legs, falls in love, fights an ancient curse But it’s also a ghost story, the people and land of Black Conch are haunted by the island’s legacy of colonialism and slavery.
“The Mermaid of Black Conch” is told from three different narrative voices: the retrospective diary entries of David, the good-hearted fisherman who rescues Aycayia; a wandering, omniscient narrator who gives us access to the minds of both major and minor characters; and Aycayia’s own voice in couplets. For a book with so much story, the changes of perspective provide an agility that does a lot with a relatively small space. The book is named after Aycayia, but the story is teeming with characters, and also belongs to Miss Arcadia Rain, the descendant of an Anglican priest who bought his land shortly after the end of slavery on the island. Miss Rain, despite loving a man on the black island named Life and raising their deaf mixed-race son, Reggie, alone, she still lives in a literal hillside house built for her ancestor by the exploited labor of people now only recently emancipated. Miss Rain owns much of the island’s land, but she feels weird about it: It was partly Life’s disgust at the idea of living in that slave house that drove him away from her. “She had come to terms with the strange fact that she was a white woman with a Creole song in her mouth,” she muses early on, but when she gets caught up in Aycayia’s story, she begins to explore the caustic power of her own. and to doubt. whiteness, and her heritage of the island. Aycayia also symbolizes the past of the Caribbean in a different way; “Looking back into her face,” says David, “knew I was looking back into the past of these islands and into my own history as a man.”
Aycayia is a magical creature, although it is rendered so physically that you may come to believe in the existence of mermaids. As she regains her human form, her “funny eyes” and webbed feet immediately signal her otherness: her unfamiliarity with the world of Black Conch makes her a strange kind of immigrant in both time and place. Because her beauty evokes lust, contempt, fear and dangerous envy, Aycayia can replace many ideas and reactions to femininity, especially indigenous femininity. That’s a lot of symbols to put on her shoulders, and the book falters when it tries too explicitly to give meaning to what has been subtly unspoken. And with a cast of characters this large, some of the minor but crucial ones — like Life or David’s meddling neighbor Priscilla — can feel a bit one-dimensional, especially since we have direct access to their consciousness. Yet one cannot help but admire the boldness of Roffey’s vision and admit some flaws in a book so magnanimous. Sentence-wise, Roffey builds a green, complicated world in which it is pleasant to live.