top of page

The Mermaid of Black Conch


Monique Roffey (Vintage: 2020)

When I was asked to review Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, Costa Book of the Year in 2020, the phrase ‘magic realism’ was used. I have to admit I needed to revisit the definition of the term. Wikipedia, the quickest available source, refers to it as ‘ a 20th century style of fiction and literary genre… . As a literary fiction style, magic realism paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements, often dealing with the blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality.’ What was clear from the same source is the wide ranging debate between writers and critics as to which works fall within the genre. Some of the authors highlighted were no surprise to me, including Angela Carter, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and now Monique Roffey.

The story begins in April 1976 when David Baptiste, a young Caribbean fisherman, anchors off some rocks in the early morning and begins to sing, accompanied by his guitar, while enjoying a ‘spliff’. Apparently attracted by this sunrise sound a red-skinned merwoman appears from the depths of the sea, and David catches sight of ‘her shoulders, her head, her breasts, and her long black hair like ropes, all sea mossy, and jook up with anemone and conch shell’.

David begins to secretly meet Aycayia, a woman who hundreds of years ago had been cursed by jealous wives to live in the sea, and falls in love with her. This romance is disrupted when Aycayia is caught by American tourists and begins the transformation into a land-based woman. The unfolding narrative, told via the woman’s rough poetic voice; David’s journal, written almost forty years after the events; and through a third person narrator, is scattered with intriguing metaphors which make for a powerful and thought-provoking read.

At the end of the book the author writes of the various sources which inspired the novel. The long scene where Aycayia is caught by the American fisherman had reminded me of Hemingway and Monique says that this scene ‘owes partial homage to Hemingway’s posthumously published Islands in the Stream’, a favourite of mine which will now get a re-reading. The author also mentions the myths of mermaids told worldwide and by chance I had just read ‘The Runaway’ by Alison Dudeney, a rewriting of ‘The Original Orwell Mermaid Folk Tale’ in Suffolk Folk, East Anglian Tales for the 21st Century (University of Suffolk: 2021). For the male perspective, Nicola Warwick’s poem ‘The Wildman of Orford’ from her recent collection Naming The Land (Maytree Press: 2021), also just read, should not be overlooked. So no need to go to the Caribbean to catch a bit of magic.


bottom of page