The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Read Caribbean Book of CinzJune is Caribbean Heritage Month in the US, held to recognise the many contributions they have made, so not surprisingly, it has been picked up by Book of Cinz to create awareness for Caribbean Literature, Caribbean Authors and Authors from Caribbean Heritage for readers, encouraging us all to discover and read more of their works.

The Contemporary Caribbean Woman Writer, Keeping Ancestral Connections Alive

I have a fondness of Caribbean women writers and in years past I have reviewed a number of books by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. Crossing the Mangrove  was one of my favourite reads in 2020.

Jamaica Kincaid is another author I admire and her novel The Autobiography of My Mother was an Outstanding Read of 2015. There is something special in the way they writer inter-generational stories, even when some have immigrated, there remains a connection between women in families, even those who have passed, that they have a particular way of expressing that I find magical, as they address themes of identity, belonging and familial connection.

Mythology and Colonisation

It seems that they have developed their own history, mythology, use of language and tradition and not only are they connected to the African diaspora, there is the effect and influence of colonisation, something that both takes away from their essence and has woven itself into their thinking, they can neither rid themselves of it or embrace its legacy.

mermaid of the black conch Monique RoffeyThe Mermaid of Black Conch is an excellent example of the intersection of those effects and her well drawn characters each possess something of that heritage and complication.

Monique Roffey uses a Neo-Taino (people who inhabited the Caribbean 2000 years before the Christian era) legend of a woman transformed into a mermaid, having been cursed by jealous women due to her beauty and effect on men as the foundation of a contemporary story, when this ancient mermaid is captured by an opportunistic and exploitative American man and his son in a fishing competition.

A local fisherman David sings to himself awaiting his catch and the ancient mermaid Aycayia first appears to him. The story is told in part through his journals and in part through the poetic songs of the mermaid and a third person narrative.

She looking like a woman from long ago, like old time Taino people I saw in a history book at school. She face was young and not pretty at all and I recognise something ancient there too. I saw the face of a human woman who lived centuries past, shining at me.

David feels guilty when he hears of the mermaids capture knowing that she has become familiar with his presence. He blames himself for her capture and decides to intervene knowing nothing good will come of her being taken by men not from the island.

Trophy Hunting

photo of man fishing

Photo by William McAllister on Pexels.com

The man who captured her insists she is a fish and has destructive, misogynistic intentions, while his son, whom he had brought with him in the hope of father-son bonding, is appalled but ineffective in stopping him, as are the other men on the boat.

They are a reminder of the many who came before them exploiting the islands natural resources, wishing to claim her bounty as their own.

Uncomfortable yet uncaring, violence and violation has become normalised and the suggestion that she may be worth millions renders them all complicit.

David’s original plan to release her is thwarted as she transforms into a woman, but with few of the skills necessary to survive and he is afraid of people finding out he had sheltered her. He tries to gain her trust, but she is wary of men.

She’d changed his comprehension of what it was to be human. An intuition pestered him that they had met before, that he’d even been searching for her, out there, by those jagged rocks off Murder Bay.

Settler Colonialism and Land Ownership

Miss Arcadia Rain, another island inhabitant lives in the biggest house on the island with her deaf son Reggie. She is local, white and a landowner; she keeps herself distant from the population, though she is as much a part of it as them all. The bay area was her inheritance, it is both her joy and a burden something she struggles to reconcile.

The Rain family had owned almost the whole of St Constance, since 1865, a generation after slavery time. The estate was mostly rainforest high up in the hills, but it came down to St Constance and the bay.

The mermaid becomes friends with Reggie and the two use sign language, to communicate; the friendship brings David and Miss Rain together as they try to figure out what to do.

humpback whale in ocean water on sunny day

Photo: Stefanie Klenner @ Pexels.com

Inevitably there is another jealous woman, and the ill-meaning cackle of those who long ago cursed Aycayia can be heard, as strange things happen on the island making it clear that she is unlikely to be able to stay.

The story explores love, loss, separation, the destructiveness of female jealousy, the ease and allure of male corruption and the repercussions of one family possessing ownership of most of the land in a community.

Although the mermaid is the oldest inhabitant, she is seen as an outsider and her presence brings out the good and the bad in the community, exposing its cracks.

It’s a thought -provoking read and an interesting portrayal of a community living under the influence of its historical past and that influences the behaviour of contemporary inhabitants.

The Mermaid of Black Conch was the 2020 winner of the Costa Book Award, with another Caribbean author Ingrid Persaud winning the Debut Fiction Prize for Love After Love.

Further Reading

The Observer: The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey review – a fishy tale of doomed womanhood by Anthony Cummins

Do you have a favourite Caribbean novel?

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

As soon as I saw that there was a book out called Love After Love, I was curious, then seeing it was written by a UK based Trinidadian author, I knew it was no coincidence.

Derek Alcott, Poet

Trinidad Literature Costa PrizeLove After Love is the title of one of my favourite poems by Derek Walcott (1930-2017) of St Lucia in the West Indies. A poet and playwright, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He moved to Trinidad after graduation when he was 23, having already published two volumes of poetry by the age of 19.

I first encountered his poem in the front of Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife. It is a poem that elicits different feelings from readers, depending perhaps on when in their lives it is encountered; some relate it to rediscovering one’s cultural identity, others to grief, a broken heart or to the freedom of finding one’s true purpose.

For me it evokes a feeling of a partial awakening of consciousness, the discovery that one is able to self-nourish and expend love and energy inward, rather than expressing it or looking for it externally. It represents a form of liberation and freedom, a soul awakening, leading.

I was curious to see how Ingrid Persaud would write a story with such a bold and beautiful reference.  How would this story encapsulate the essence of that wonderful poem I wondered, and imagine if it succeeded.

Winner of Costa Book Award 2020, First Novel

Love After Love Ingrid Persaud Love After Love was shortlisted for the popular Costa Book Awards (annual literary awards recognising English-language books by writers based in Britain and Ireland) in the First Novel category.

I was quietly confident it would win this category, as I’ve followed category judge and highly valued reader/blogger Eric Anderson of The Lonesome Reader for years and I knew how much he loved this novel (it was in his Top 10 of 2020). It did win and the novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story by Monique Roffey also set in the Caribbean won the Novel Award.

Ingrid Persaud won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC Short Story Award in 2018. An author I’m sure we’re going to be reading more of in future.

Review

From the short opening Betty chapter I was riveted. Vivid, charged and terrifying, I felt like my heart was in my throat with my hand gripping it. And then, just as quickly, an immense relief followed it.

Costa Book Awards 2020 Love After Love Derek Walcott poemBy page seven there is a broken arm and a funeral as I gasp “Thank goodness” for I couldn’t bear to spend more time in the presence of Betty’s volatile husband Sunil. After five pages of tension-filled dialogue, the book becomes unputdownable.

In that opening chapter we read of a significant turning point in Betty’s life. There will be a further turning point later relating to the events of that day, one that the second half of the book and its characters will struggle with.

The book is structured into chapters told from the perspective of the three main characters, Betty, Solo and soon to become boarder Mr Chetan, Betty’s work colleague who calls her Mrs Ramdin, despite her insistence that he use her first name. The dialogue is written in the unique island way of speaking, a Trinidadian dialect, that I imagine is even more colourful to listen to on audio. It brings the text alive.

In Mr Chetan’s opening chapter he is late for work, waiting to catch a maxi taxi and getting more and more stressed as none are passing to flag down. He is a little mortified to see Mrs Ramdin’s car slowing down, instructing him to jump in quick, they’re holding up traffic.

Nothing’s wrong with Mrs Ramdin. She’s a little talkative. And you can see the girl she was in her big dark eyes and simple shoulder length hair. I just prefer not to be too friend friend with people in the main office. Next thing the whole of town all up in your business. I know she so so. Good morning, how you going, but never any big conversation.

That unexpected interaction lead to his learning she was looking for a lodger, and if he knew anyone suitable. Though he doesn’t present himself as a candidate then, because he knows she would prefer a woman, later he seeks her out and by the weekend is moving in.

The delightful, yet lost Mr Chetan is a sensitively drawn character, living in a country fearful of being himself, yet finds ways to make the lives of those around him better. Cast out from his own, he is everyone’s friend.

In the first half of the book we get to know these brilliantly portrayed characters, the new routines and life they create for themselves as a kind of family, the laughs, the loves, the conversations, the creation of a bond they’re hardly aware of as it entwines their lives together. Until the hunger to create a life for themselves results in both Solo and Mr Chetan moving away. All three of them will undertake an inner journey of discovery.

Betty is distraught. Solo takes such a tough line against his mother once he has left, too young to know what preceded him, she experiences the mother’s dilemma of not wishing to cast her sons father as a villain, while suffering the sons judgement of her, having cast her as the ‘baddie’ instead.

I must be call Solo a hundred times but he not answering. I don’t know if to stop calling or what to do. He have age so he could do what he want. I must accept that. You make your children, look after them and hope for the best. But oh gosh, man. Any fool knows that reaching adult age is not the same as having the sense and the experience. And if anybody needs some good sense knocked into them it’s that boy and his hard head. Who going to help him up there? Hari?

Solo is angry and not in the mood to listen, nor realises what he has lost in leaving. Betty’s calls go unanswered. She writes letters instead and we hear her thoughts, we hear his and we experience the frustration of a mother-son situation that endures.

Ingrid Persaud captures brilliantly the dynamic of both, the stubborn independence of the son, his inner pain and the torturous way he deals with it – hides it – and the perseverance of his mother, never giving up on her son, consistent in her love of him. Solo’s struggles are also external, the flip side of the American dream, the reality of creating a new life alone, where everything is unfamiliar and one doesn’t know who to trust, the shame that prevents a young man from admitting to his mother that he isn’t okay.

And Mr Chetan, always there for them both, with his quietly spoken, sound advice and his complex life.

Totally engaging characters and story line all the way through, sad to have left them all behind.

Highly recommend!

Further Reading

Review, The Washington Post: ‘Love After Love’ reminds readers why we go to books in search of answers to life’s great questions by Naomi Jackson

My Review: Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

L O V E   A F T E R   L O V E
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
love after love Ingrid Persaud Costa Book Awards