As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of authors taking old myths or mythological creatures and putting a new spin on them. The Mermaid of Black Conch is a great addition to that genre. Instead of The Little Mermaid type tale about a mermaid who wants to become human, the mermaid of Black Conch used to be human and a curse transformed her into a mermaid. After living as a mermaid for centuries, she suddenly and violently finds herself returning to land.
The story follows several characters, but primarily we have David, a young man born and raised in Trinidad who spends most of his days out fishing. He brings his guitar and sings and plays while out on his boat. His music catches the attention of a mermaid named Aycayia, who breaks the surface to hear him better, stunning David and encouraging him to return to the spot and sing day after day.
Aycayia was a Taino woman, living before Columbus showed up and shattered the world. Her beauty and voice drew men to her, to the annoyance of the other women of the island. They cursed her and another older woman who was Aycayia’s friend. Aycayia became a mermaid, the other woman a sea turtle, and they spent the centuries in the sea, avoiding humans. Until David’s singing reached Aycayia’s ears in 1975. Though Aycayia doesn’t speak to him, she begins to follow his boat, listening to his music and remembering her old life.
Then a couple White Americans invade their tranquility. The father, a businessman – a “man’s man” – is determined to use a big game fishing trip to toughen up his perceived weakling of a son. His son, not exactly thrilled to be on this trip, casts his line. Unbeknownst to him, Aycayia heard the motor and, assuming it was David, swam into the area. The bite on his line was no big game fish. Together, father and son reel in the biggest catch ever – an actual mermaid.
After they bring her in and string her up on the dock like the giddy fishermen in Jaws who imagine themselves to be kings of the ocean, they go celebrate at the bar. David, wracked with guilt, takes the opportunity to cut Aycayia loose and bring her back to his home. While she recovers in his bathtub, David tries to figure out what he should do next. Slowly, Aycayia’s curse seems to lift, creating new dilemmas for everyone.
Told primarily through a third person narrative, Roffey peppers in excerpts from David’s journal and Aycayia’s viewpoint as well. It’s an elegant use of language. Even though everything is in English, Roffey deftly uses distinctive voices for each of the characters. Aycayia’s use of verse is particularly well done.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is more than a revision of classic mermaid tales. It also tackles colonialism, racism, love, jealously, class, and more. All of it is wrapped up into an intriguing and compelling story spanning centuries.