The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845234577, 190 pp)
Confession: I’m over traditional Caribbean stories. The folklore, the obeah, the duppies, the plantations, and all the stereotypical figures of Caribbean society. Over it.
I know, pure blasphemy coming from a Trinidadian writer when the life blood of our region’s literature has always been the dark allure of our folk stories, the tongue-in-cheek humour of our traditional characters, and the violent truths unveiled by our colonial and post-colonial tales. Nonetheless, two decades into the twenty-first century, I believed it was time to move on.
With The Mermaid of Black Conch, Monique Roffey has proven that I couldn’t be more wrong.
Set in 1976 on the fictional island of Black Conch, the novel unfolds when Aycayia, an indigenous Taino woman cursed to spend eternity as a mermaid and “stay away from man”, is caught by Floridian tourists then rescued by a love-struck fisherman, David. While Roffey suffuses this fanciful premise with real-life details that render it utterly convincing, she offers up far more than just David and Aycayia’s magical-realist love story (although the romance will make your stomach flip, and the novel sizzles with sensuality). Using a stylistically bold mish-mash of prose, poetry, Creole and standard English, omniscient narration, and journal entries, Roffey packs in a powerful commentary on womanhood, postcolonial life, and what it means to be different within the confines of Caribbean society.
Let’s start with our central figure, Aycayia the mermaid, her “sex sealed up forever” by women in her village who resented their men’s draw to Aycayia, despite the fact that Aycayia rebuffs them all. Not only is Aycayia brutally cursed by these women because of their jealousy, but another woman is also “exiled for being old” and telling “uncomfortable truths”, condemned to eternity as a leatherback turtle. In this way, the novel reminds us that in our Caribbean milieu, any female in the margins of society’s expectations of womanhood, or any female perceived as a threat to said expectations, will suffer for it. Here, Roffey’s point is clear: if you can’t conform to the acceptable epithets of womanhood – faithful wife, fecund Madonna, docile virgin – then, as we say in these parts, somebody go do for you. And the greatest irony of all is that somebody will likely be other women offended by non-adherence to the norms they themselves uphold.
The second key figure in Roffey’s tale is Arcadia Rain, “a white woman with a Creole song in her mouth” who lives in near-isolation with her deaf son in a dilapidated plantation-era Great House. Like Aycayia, she finds herself marginalised in Black Conch society. Whilst she speaks only “Black Conch parlance” and knows the island intimately, her “milk white” skin and residence in the house mark her as different, driving her to isolate herself “to keep away from this hatred. History. The great tragic past.” She knows what her skin, the house and her ownership of much of the island represent, namely the ugly legacy of slavery, and she retreats from the bitterness it attracts. Here, Roffey gives a rare, nuanced perception of this minority group in the Caribbean. Rather than using the broad villain brush often employed to paint hateful white characters in Caribbean literature, we are offered a balanced view of the experience of this ‘other’ in Caribbean society—one in which we acknowledge the vile source of Arcadia Rain’s otherness, and recognise how she continues to clutch to the privileges it has afforded her, while still feeling empathy for her circumstances on the island. No easy feat, yet Roffey pulls it off with aplomb.
The novel reminds us that in our Caribbean milieu, any female in the margins of society’s expectations of womanhood, or any female perceived as a threat to said expectations, will suffer for it.
In keeping with the theme of otherness, we go on to meet Life, Arcadia Rain’s erstwhile lover and the father of her child, who also exiles himself because “he’d simply had enough of … the talk of “house nigger” in the village, the consequence of loving the white lady up on the hill … He’d needed to make his mark, discover the possibilities out there in the world” as an artist. Here we are forced once more to confront the way our society punishes those who seek to cross the postcolonial boundaries of class and colour, as well as the internal drive to escape the confines of a Caribbean society that mocks the desire to pursue unorthodox dreams bigger than what we are taught to want as Caribbean citizens.
Reggie, Life and Arcadia’s son, is yet another example of ‘other’, as he is born deaf, immediately placing him on the social fringes, forcing him into isolation alongside his mother. Once more, we see the confines created within these small societies, where inclusivity remains limited, especially for the differently abled.
Lastly, readers meet Priscilla, a distinctly traditional Caribbean character, the ‘village baddiss’, the type of woman we all love to think ourselves better than. We come to learn, however, that while decidedly malicious, Priscilla is nevertheless a single mother who only wants a clean slate and a better future far from the stigmas attached to her in her hometown. She has also suffered due to the problematic sexual recklessness common amongst Caribbean men, and bears substantial societal judgement because of her sexual appetite.
Through each of these characters, from the protagonists to the lesser yet equally integral figures, Roffey’s driving force in this novel is a heightened need for empathy. For love in all its forms. She urges us to abandon the absurd practice of ‘othering’ in the Caribbean context. Women tear each other apart over men. Villagers who’ve known each other all their lives betray each other for money. We reject one another because of disabilities, because of who people fall in love with, because of the history attached to complexion, refusing to see each other as one. And what does this achieve? We are left with a fractured society still struggling to fully break free of the ugliness of history, a society full of judgement and vicious duplicity. A society that can only be saved when we all pull together, each doing our part to move forward from our sinister shared history, a message brought home through the metaphor of the hurricane that strikes the island, at last forcing Arcadia to relinquish the unjust privileges afforded her by abandoning the house.
In its conclusion, the novel also gives a clear warning in this regard. Aycayia is forced back to her lonely existence as a mermaid because of a plot by Priscilla and police officer Porthos John to recapture her and sell her back to the white American tourists, despite David chastising Priscilla: “You want to make some money? Eh? You figure she is that kind of thing? An object. To sell. To trade.” Although Roffey continually draws our attention to the painful lasting impact of slavery and the inequalities that persist as a result, she also makes two shrewd observations with this turn of the plot: the evil of human nature is not delineated by race; the lessons of history often go unheeded. When will man, when given power over another’s fate, choose not to benefit from that power? When will man simply learn to be kind? Perhaps the fact that Aycayia’s curse goes unbroken hints to us that we will never learn to let go of the past, to be kinder or less cruel until we actively strive to be better.
Needless to say, Roffey masterfully employs traditional figures and folklore of our Caribbean landscape and our most noted literary tradition, magical realism, to emphasise issues that are searingly pertinent today. With its confidently unapologetic use of Creole and its nuanced, intelligent examination of Caribbean people, The Mermaid of Black Conch is more than a great read; it is a call-to-action. Women must stop ‘othering’ one another. Caribbean people must stop ‘othering’ one another. We are bound for better or worse by our collective past; we must learn to live harmoniously in spite of it, looking to love and not hate as the means to advance our society. If the true ambition of all art is to inspire change for good, Monique Roffey has succeeded without a doubt in The Mermaid of Black Conch. Reader, take heed.
Caroline Mackenzie is Trinidadian writer, the author of the novel One Year of Ugly.