Hundreds of years ago, the novel’s mermaid was simply a “redskinned” woman whose father was an important chief. Her name was Aycayai: “sweet voice.” After quarrelling with her family, her sisters impose a mermaid curse on her. Aycayai lives contently for centuries in the Caribbean sea until one day she’s drawn to the tiny island of Black Conch by guitar music from a 26-year-old fisherman named David Baptiste. After an epic sea battle, she is subdued by a rich white American fisherman and hauled onboard:
“Sea moss trailed from her shoulders like slithers of beard. Barnacles speckled the swell of her hips. Her torso was sturdy and muscular, finely scaled over, as if she wore a tunic of sharkskin. She was crawling with sea-lice.”
Reactions of the sailors vary. Someone asks whether a mermaid is fish or meat. Whispers spread about raping her or pissing on it. However, some islanders immediately sense a sacred quality:
“The local men stared. They felt a sense of blasphemy; this was something they shouldn’t be doing. They should pull the hook from her mouth and release her back into the deep. They saw her rare nature, her long dreadlocks flowing about her, and the water jolting electric currents of silver alongside her tail.”
Trinidadian-born British writer Monique Roffey’s fifth novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, completely expunges every odour, scale, and drop of salt water of Disneyfication from the myths and folklore surrounding mermaids. This is not a cute romance between a fish-woman and a hunky male who rescues her from the evil American fat cat. It’s an intricate fable set within a realistic framework that is comprised of elements of class, politics, and race. Transitions and transformations are crucial, movements from one state to another, continuums of self-identity and genetic identity.
David Baptiste rescues Aycayai and hides her in his bathtub. Before he can return her to the sea, she starts to transform back into a woman. As she continues to shed more and more of her fish characteristics, he struggles to gain her trust. David clings to a gossamer of hope that their future might include marriage and normalcy:
“How does a humble fisherman seduce a mermaid? Do not offer her a cigarette and half kill her with its chemicals. Do not cook her fish. Do not covet her at all, in anyway. Avert your eyes from her nakedness. . . . Listen to her sing at night, songs of exquisite melody. . . . Help her find language, any language at first. Hope her own words will soon flow.”
Another critical character is Arcadia Rain, a “white woman with a Creole song in her mouth.” She is the only white woman on Black Conch; she also owns the entire island. Although her ancestors were never directly involved in the slave trade, they did exploit the islanders. Reggie, her deaf ten-year-old son immediately connects with Aycayai at his birthday party over reggae.
The novel investigates points between extremes or endpoints on spectrums. For example, in some sense, a mermaid represents a stalled transition of a woman into a fish. The college-aged-son of the rich white fisherman is bisexual: another orientation on a spectrum. At what point does a fish become a woman? When does a white woman become black? When does a deaf boy begin to “hear” a thunderous reggae beat through headphones to dance with a woman who used to be a mermaid but who is transitioning back to fish status?
As Aycayai’s transition from mermaid to nearly human female body nears completion, she begins to feel trapped, realizing that she is passing as a woman. She longs for her mermaid existence because she can’t escape the pull of the sea:
“She missed the sea, though. She missed her tail. She had been a tremendous mermaid. . . . On land she was a small woman. In the sea, she had swum alongside whales.”
Any Cop?: Although its last quarter featured slightly too much one-dimensional bad-guy plotting and denouement for my tastes, Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch is a captivating novel whose simple conceit snared me from its opening chapter. Compact and engaging.