Patience is a virtue… After thirty-five years, the tiny team at Peepal Tree has finally hit the big time, with their novel Mermaid of Black Conch winning the Costa Book Award at the same time as their Green Unpleasant Land, on the links between slavery and country houses, is debated, well, attacked, by the paragons of virtue at the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. I’m not sure if the DM/DT are angry that someone has noticed these links or whether they are angry that someone did not think such links were a good thing…. This less than two years since Roger Robinson won the TS Eliot Prize for poetry with Portable Paradise, Peepal Tree’s previous best seller.
For Robinson, his portable paradise, stitched into his family memory is “white sands, green hills and fresh fish.” He could easily have been describing the small island of Black Conch. There, in 1976 David Baptiste was out in his boat doing a bit of leisurely fishing, in his favourite quiet area, playing his guitar and smoking the odd spliff. And it is there he finds an audience – the mermaid who comes to listen. To be honest I had doubts about the book in advance, well, mermaids… but I was hooked. As indeed was the mermaid who would get caught by some Yankee sports’ fishermen. Roffey’s description of their struggle – or rather the struggle of the two white men, first the son, then the father – to reel her in was gripping. They had to be tied into the “fighting chair” as they would to bring in, say, a marlin. But this was a mermaid. Their crew of local fishermen were aghast, they wanted none of it, but the father could see the money that the mermaid would bring him.
The mermaid is hung up on the dock but is rescued by Baptiste who takes her home, putting her in his bath. However, this was no ordinary mermaid for she was Aycayia, one of the original residents of the Caribbean who had been condemned to roam the sea for thousands of years by a spell. She speaks no English, remembering only a few words of her original language. Nor does she know anything about clothes, of cooked food or of, well, how to go to the toilet when you no longer live in the sea. The book is earthy. Aycayia gradually turns back into a woman – her scales fall off, her tail rots, her feet and hands become less webby, but she never quite loses her mermaid characteristics including her odour of the sea.
Here the other two main characters of the book appear – Arcadia and her born-deaf son Reggie, who communicates in sign language. Arcadia is the only white person on the island, the last of the Rain family which once owned most of the area. But Arcadia speaks the Caribbean dialect of Black Conch, which suffuses the book. She comes to the door with a poetry book by Derek Walcott in her hand. The father of her child is Black. She has no interest in her estate, selling it off cheaply in parcels, bothering little about collecting rent, but there is still the issue of the rich woman on the island being white. Arcadia and Reggie help Aycayia – Arcadia teaches her English, Reggie sign language. She becomes his friend.
How does all this work out? I can’t do spoilers here but can a mermaid really adapt to life in the small town of St Constance on Black Conch? What do the neighbours think – it’s not like you can keep the whole incident a secret. So read the book. It’s the best novel about fish since Moby Dick.
Despite my reserve because of the subject I was able to suspend belief and cared about all the characters and whether the growing love (OK, a bit of a spoiler) between David and Aycayia could possibly work. There is drama in that Aycayia still feels the call of the sea and those who condemned her to live forever in the sea are watching and angry.
This is Monique Roffey’s seventh book and the one that will have made her name, being already shortlisted for other prizes. She will be reading and being interviewed by Deirdre O’Byrne at a Five Leaves online event on 14 April.
The book is available here:fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-mermaid-of-black-conch-a-love-story/