Review: The Mermaid of Black Conch

Set in St Constance, a small Caribbean village on the island of Black Conch, this novella follows the story of a fisherman called David who one day unwittingly lures a creature he doesn’t expect towards his fishing boat – a beautiful woman named Aycayia who was cursed to live as a mermaid under the Caribbean Sea for centuries. On hearing David’s songs, she is captivated. But it’s not long before her captivation leads to her capture.

Hearing a boat engine groan, she excitedly swims towards it. Suddenly, she realises it’s not David trawling the waves, but a brutal gang of American tourists who are fishing the same waters. After a gruesom struggle against the men, Aycayia is pulled out of the sea and hung on the dock. David seeks to rescue her. But out of the deep waters, Aycayia’s body begins to return to womanhood – a transformation which suggests the curse is finally broken…for now at least.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a poetic, mystical tale about a mermaid’s journey back into womanhood. It is brimming with symbolism and has all the dark magic you could want from a legend-story. It reads like a fairytale, but with the unsettling grimness you could expect from an ancient fable. While it’s set in 1976, Aycayia is from a different time and her presence gives the story an other-worldly, antiquated quality. Centuries ago, she was cursed by a group of jealous wives, now she is beaten by a band of drunken men. Throughout time, she has been subjected to the male gaze, punished for her beauty and condemned for her sexuality. She is seen as a treasure from the sea that can be owned and conquered – not just by her captors, but also by her rescuer.

Poetic verses are threaded through the book, giving Aycayia’s perspective in the most beautifully haunting, lyrical way. Her poetic voice elevates the story beyond a traditional moralistic tale – in giving her a voice, even if it’s one that only we can hear, Roffey grants her some autonomy and power despite the subjugation she suffers. Through her poems, Aycayia explores and reckons with her past, her new anatomy, her loneliness and desperation for human connection and her sexuality which has laid dormant under the sea for many years.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a unique tale about possession, ownership and the things beyond our control. The power dynamics are endlessly shifting and, by subverting the vision of a beautiful mermaid perched calmly on a rock, it ignited my imagination and made for a compelling read.

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