Beauty inside

Review: “The Mermaid of the Black Conch”, by Monique Roffey

THE BLACK CONCH MERMAID, by Monique Roffey


Off the coast of Black Conch, an imaginary island in the Caribbean, in 1976, two white American men and a crew of sailors from the Black Isle snag a mermaid and pull it out of the water. Almost all sailors experience a deep unease, “a sense of blasphemy”, at the act of capture: “So close, she was terrifying, a person there, no doubt about it; a woman trapped and dying. The mermaid Aycayia—huge, wounded, furious, utterly vulnerable, “creeping sea lice”—brings forth powerful urges in men: to hurt her, to possess her, to touch her, to mark her, despite or even because of hatred . in his “pewter eyes”. This violent and fascinating scene begins “The Mermaid of the Black Conch”, signaling the ambition of the book. Monique Roffey’s sixth novel is a fairy tale: The mermaid throws off her tail, finds her legs, falls in love, fights an ancient curse. But it’s also a ghost story, with the people and very land of Black Conch haunted by the island’s legacy of colonialism and slavery.

“The Black Conch Mermaid” is told from three distinct narrative voices: the retrospective diary entries of David, the kind-hearted fisherman who saves Aycayia; a traveling and omniscient narrator who allows us to enter the minds of major and minor characters; and Aycayia’s own voice in verse. For a book with so much history, the perspective shifts allow for agility that does a lot in a relatively small space. The book is named after Aycayia, but the story is full of characters, and also belongs to Miss Arcadia Rain, the descendant of an Anglican priest who bought her land shortly after slavery ended on the island. Miss Rain, though she loves a Black Isle man named Life, and raising her deaf, mixed-race son, Reggie, still lives alone in a literal house on the hill, built for her ancestor through exploited labor of people who are now only recently emancipated. Miss Rain owns much of the island’s land, but she feels weird about it: It was partly Life’s revulsion at living in this slave-haunted house that kept him away from life. ‘she. “She had come to terms with the strange fact of being a white woman with a Creole song in her mouth,” she thinks early on, but as she becomes entangled with Aycayia’s story, she begins to examine and to question the corrosive power of his own. whiteness, and his island heritage. Aycayia also comes to symbolize the past of the Caribbean, in another way; “When I look at his face,” David says, “I knew I was looking at the past of these islands and my own history as a man.”

Aycayia is a magical creature, although rendered so physically that you might start to believe in the existence of mermaids. As she reverts to human form, her “crazy eyes” and webbed fingers immediately signal her otherness: her unfamiliarity with the world of Black Conch makes her a strange sort of immigrant both in time and in time. space. As her beauty evokes lust, contempt, fear and dangerous envy, Aycayia can come to replace many ideas and reactions to femininity, especially indigenous femininity. That’s a lot of symbols to place on his shoulders, and the book falters when he tries too explicitly to make sense of what’s been delicately left out. And with such a large cast of characters, some of the minor but pivotal characters – like Life or David’s prying neighbor Priscilla – can seem a bit one-dimensional, especially since we have direct access to their consciousness. Still, one can’t help but admire the audacity of Roffey’s vision and allow for some flaws in such a generous book. Sentence by sensual sentence, Roffey builds a green and complicated world in which it is good to live.