It’s April 1976 on the Caribbean island of Black Conch, a place where “men grew weed and fished in the sea”, where everyone is related to everyone, “where the gods still laughed and said not so fast“. Two white Floridians, father and son Thomas (a Trumpian banker and golfer) and Hank Clayson, are in town for the annual sports fishing contest. Hiring three local men they head out to sea for the day, followed by fisherman David Baptiste in his pirogue. He is concerned that the Americans might catch more than a marlin: the mermaid he has recently met while out fishing himself and with whom he has fallen in love. Of course, they do catch the mermaid, in a brutal battle reminiscent of The Old Man And The Sea or Moby Dick. They bring her ashore and “strung her up alongside the two marlin for all to see, her head hanging downwards”. But while the men are celebrating that night, she disappears, rescued by David.
Back at David’s house on the hill above the town she gradually transforms back into a woman, grotesquely shedding her scales and tail: “her hands, were the first to change; the webbing fell off in clumps, like grey-pink jello, to the floor”. We learn she is Aycayia, a Taino woman from a “lizard island” to the north, cursed to a lifetime of exile in the sea by women jealous of their men’s attraction to her singing and dancing. She learns to speak again with the help of Miss Arcadia Rain, the local white landowner and a cousin of David, and her deaf 10-year-old son Reggie. They forge a fragile kind of family, but their happiness cannot last when jealous women, predatory men and the old gods still rein. The novel unfolds across three modes and three timelines. In the first, an omniscient narrator follows the events of 1976; in the second, an older David writes in a diary in 2015, reminiscing on the impact Aycayia had on him; and in the third we hear from Aycayia herself, which Roffey renders as songs written on scraps of paper sealed as a message in a bottle. The Mermaid Of Black Conch starts as a big fish tale, becomes a fish-out-of-water story, and poses briefly as a steamy romance, but these are something of a red herring. There is a fable-like simplicity to the story, which extends to its characters, good and bad.
The real pathos of Aycayia’s fate is that she is more than exiled from her island. She is nearly a thousand years outside of her former existence; her people are mostly gone, dispossessed and murdered by colonisers. Moreover, we also know that she will outlast David. Such existential loneliness pervades the whole novel, emphasised by the novel’s three narrative structure. David’s mother is dead; his father left before he could remember him. “Though I always know who I was in Black Conch,” David says, “family history don’t go back far. That memory was rubbed out because of the badness of slavery … we were both lost people”. Arcadia, who conjures the ghost of Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea, is similarly abandoned, and lives alone in her decaying mansion guarded by white peacocks, a white woman on a Black island; Reggie is isolated by his deafness.
It is also a tale of men and women, and whether healthy relationships are possible when the scales are so uneven. Out on the boat the men find that “the sea, that expanse of nothingness, could reflect a man back on himself… The sea was the giant woman of the planet, watery and contrary”. On first seeing the mermaid, the men are aroused; “Did you see her tits?” asks Hank. David is perhaps different, he feels a comparable flush of blood, but in his heart. But still his conception of love revolves around marriage and “keeping” Aycayia safe. When she rejects his proposal, he wonders if “maybe ‘keep’ was the problem”. So often the sea and its exploration are the stories of men penetrating the unknown; in The Mermaid Of Black Conch Roffey writes women back into the story, as Mirandi Riwoe did in her recent novella The Fish Girl. It is similarly about reconceiving relationships to nature, which run the gamut from from the masculine exploitation of the Americans, the feminine alienation of Arcadia, to the profoundly intimate connection Aycayia feels to the land and its inhabitant. “A mermaid does be a revolutionary”, David writes at one point, and at its best the novel reminded me of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Adventures Of China Iron, conjuring new and better ways of living with each other and nature.
The simplicity of this tale and its writing is deceptive. Roffey captures the vernacular of the island, a place where single words convey whole histories. The fisherman sail out from Murder Bay, evoking any number of untold horrors in the island’s past; Black Conch itself seems a reference to the Carib word for Tobago, Urupina, meaning a big snail. Roffey is similarly economic with character, plot and setting:
Black Conch was a helluva place, Miss rain often said, and the northern tip of the island was a special type of hell. Her earliest memory was of a low, incessant growl through the night, like thunder and bestial hunger mixed together, a growl that said I’m coming to shred you, but it was only the howler monkeys in the rainforest behind the house. The Rain land included some of the most ancient rainforest in earth. She’d grown up with this rumbling, imminent threat that one day she’d be eaten alive.
From the hurricanes that swirl in from the ocean, the rain that comes in torrents in the wet season, or the rainforest vibrating with life, this is a slight story that nevertheless punches with elemental force.
Gay rating: 2/5 for a character who has a queer realisation thanks to the mermaid.