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book cover of the mermaid of black conch by monique roffey

The Mermaid of Black Conch

Monique Roffey was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Today she commutes between the Caribbean and the UK, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester. In The Mermaid of Black Conch, she takes up the mermaid myth, sets the story in a small Caribbean fishing village, and negotiates not only colonial contexts but also centuries-old patriarchal traditions.

Aycayia belongs to the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, the Taíno, most of whom were murdered by European colonisers shortly after their arrival on the islands. Aycayia was only able to survive because jealous women had cursed her for her beauty: Aycayia has spent the last centuries lonely in the sea as a mermaid. In 1974, a fishing competition takes place on the coast of Black Conch and two white US-American tourists fish the mermaid out of the water. The local helpers on board would prefer to throw her back into the sea, but the tourists sense an unexpected windfall from this rare catch, because US museums would certainly want to exhibit her. But all of the men are fascinated. The beauty of the fish-tailed woman triggers sexual arousal in them in different ways – from disgusting demonstrations of power to honest caring, it all makes an appearance. David belongs to the latter group. He had seen the mermaid in the water some time ago and started playing songs to her on his guitar. Now he wants to save her.

On the mainland, a strange, cautious and loving relationship develops between David and Aycayia, who slowly turns into a human again. Although David tries to hide Aycayia, they become entangled in a web of people that Roffey cleverly uses to stage the complexities of the postcolonial Caribbean: The only white woman in the village, who, in colonial tradition, owns almost everything and who wonders how best to deal with historical responsibility, teaches Aycayia to speak – Caribbean Creole. This woman’s son, whose father ran away at birth, teaches Aycayia sign language and finally finds in her his first and only friend. His father suddenly reappears after ten years, continues to struggle with his love for a white woman, but learns new perspectives on loneliness, love and relationships through Aycayia’s presence – just like David, who will never again claim ownership over a woman. The jealous and nasty Priscilla plans to thwart David’s love and rescue operation with the help of a corrupt policeman.

The Mermaid of Black Conch negotiates allegations, accusations and historical guilt along with fairy tale motifs and a certain element of comedy. Roffey has succeeded in writing a compelling, emotional novel that, behind the playfulness of magical realism, conveys the painful consequences of restrictive gender roles and colonial continuities. 

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