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Friday, September 30, 2022

Review: ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch,’ by Monique Roffey

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Off the shores 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. Almost all the 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 trapped and dying woman.” The mermaid, Aycayia — huge, wounded, furious, utterly vulnerable, “crawling with sea-lice” — brings out powerful impulses in the men: to harm, to possess, to touch, to mark her, despite or even because of the hatred in her “tinfoil eyes.” This violent, mesmerizing scene begins “The Mermaid of Black Conch,” signaling the book’s ambition. Monique Roffey’s sixth novel is a fairy tale: The mermaid casts off her tail, regains her legs, falls in love, battles an ancient curse. But it is a ghost story too, the people and the very land of Black Conch haunted by the island’s legacy of colonialism and enslavement.

“The Mermaid of Black Conch” is told from three distinct narrative voices: the retrospective diary entries of David, the kindhearted fisherman who rescues Aycayia; a roving, omniscient narrator who allows us entry into the minds of characters both major and minor; and Aycayia’s own voice in verse. For a book with this much story, the changes of perspective allow for a nimbleness that does much with a relatively small space. The book is named for Aycayia, but the story teems with characters, and belongs also 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 Black island man named Life, and raising their deaf, mixed-race son, Reggie, alone, still lives in a literal house on the hill, built for her ancestor through the 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 in part Life’s revulsion at the idea of living in that slave-haunted house that has driven him away from her. “She had come to terms with the strange fact of being a white woman with a Creole song in her mouth,” she muses early on, but as she becomes entangled with Aycayia’s story, she begins to examine and question the corrosive power of her own whiteness, and her inheritance of the island. Aycayia too comes to symbolize the Caribbean’s past, in another way; “when I look back into her face,” David says, “I knew I looking back into the past of these islands, and into my own history as a man.”

Aycayia is a magical creature, though rendered so physically you might start to believe in the existence of mermaids. While she regains her human form, her “fonny eyes” and webbed fingers immediately signal her otherness: Her unfamiliarity with the world of Black Conch makes her a strange kind of immigrant to both time and place. As her beauty evokes lust, contempt, fear and dangerous envy, Aycayia can come to stand in for many ideas and reactions to womanhood, especially Indigenous womanhood. That’s a lot of symbol to place on her shoulders, and the book falters when it tries too explicitly to make meaning of what has been delicately left unsaid. And with a cast of characters so large, some of the minor but crucial ones — like Life or David’s meddling neighbor, Priscilla — can feel a little one-dimensional, especially since we have direct access to their consciousness. Still, one can’t help admiring the boldness of Roffey’s vision, and allowing some flaws to a book this bighearted. Sentence by sensuous sentence, Roffey builds a verdant, complicated world that is a pleasure to live inside.

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