📖 🇹🇹 #45: A modern Trinidadian mermaid story
Monique Roffey draws on Caribbean mythology
Welcome back to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Trinidadian author Monique Roffey’s brilliant novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, begins in 1976 in St Constance, a small village on the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch. The book opens with David, a local fisherman, accidently catching the attention of Aycayia, a young woman who has been cursed to live as a mermaid by wives who are jealous of her beauty. Later, upon learning that a couple of drunk tourists from Florida have caught Aycayia in the hope of entering her into a fishing contest, David decides to rescue the mermaid and take care of her at home.
“Hush, dou dou. Hush, nuh,” he says. “Is me, is me, you safe. Safe. Hush.” What follows is a fascinating love story that centres around the establishment of trust between David and Aycayia. In many ways it’s an archetypal mermaid fairytale: bad men capture a mermaid and want to sell her; a good man comes to the rescue; eventually the lines blur and we wind up with some kind of cross-species relationship. But Mermaid of Black Conch is a contemporary novel and Roffey uses David and Aycayia’s relationship to explore themes of internalised patriarchy and power.
Written in a Creole English and drawing on Caribbean folklore, The Mermaid of Black Conch switches between forms: free verse and diary entries break up straight prose from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. The book is also filled with touches of magical realism: it literally rains fish twice, “like a waterfall of silver bodies”.
Though the book centres around the love affair between David and Aycayia, The Mermaid of Black Conch is an allegory: Aycayia’s curse is a metaphor for colonialism and her capture a metaphor for slavery. Aycayia, we are told, belongs to another time: she’s part of an indigenous community long wiped out by white settlers.
She had swum so long in the sea, she had forgotten how to speak the words of her people, Taino, the good people… She looked twenty and yet she was also very old; she seemed sweet natured, an innocent, and yet she had swum the oceans alone, endured an eternal exile.
Roffey uses a cast of secondary characters to examine the island’s genocide of indigenous people. We meet Arcadia, a benevolent white landowner whose family “had not been owners of slaves, but… had benefited from the whole damn thing;” Reggie, her deaf ten-year-old son who establishes a heart-warming friendship with Aycayia; and Life, Reggie’s black father who decides to walk out on his family rather than live in a house built on a legacy of slavery.
Roffey’s decision to set The Mermaid of Black Conch in the ‘70s is also interesting. “The Seventies in the Caribbean was a time of radical change in society, political thinking and across the arts,” she says in an interview with minor literature[s]. “Cuba was communist and the Anglophone islands were no longer ruled by the British; there was self rule, black leaders, and a new era of nation building.”
In The Mermaid of Black Conch, Roffey fuses fresh ideas about gender, history, and violence with ancient mythology. The result is a pacey, thought-provoking book that’s honest about internalised abuser logic and historical injustice.
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press, 2020)
More books by authors from Trinidad and Tobago:
Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week:
Golden Child by Claire Adam
Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge
De Rightest Place by Barbara Jenkins
The Whale House by Sharon Millar
Pleasantview by Celeste Mohammed
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud
Dangerous Freedom by Lawrence Scott
Fortune by Amanda Smyth
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to June Aming and Fliss Martin-Daly for their recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!