David Baptiste’s dreads are grey and his body wizened to twigs of hard black coral, but there are still a few people around St Constance who remember him as a young man and his part in the events of 1976, when those white men from Florida came to fish for marlin and instead pulled a mermaid out of the sea.
Told in poetic, meticulous prose interspersed with oral storytelling verse, this novel is a love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. While this may seem like a tale often told, it is set apart by the rich materiality of the writing and of its Caribbean setting. While this is a true romance, a lush dance between two compelling characters, it is also about the logics and the violence of possession: how greed, envy, and the quest to own — land, money, people — hurts nature, people, and love itself.
Set in the small town of St Constance on a fictional island in the Caribbean called Black Conch, The Mermaid of Black Conch is one of several recent mermaid novels, like Rivers Solomon’s The Deep or Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea, that explore origins for mermaid lore outside of dominant European-Western narratives. Some of the characters even call Aycayia, the titular mermaid of the novel, “Mami Wata” (a powerful African water deity), reflecting the synergy between African diasporic and Indigenous water spirits and beings. Aycayia comes from Taíno lore, that of the Indigenous people of the Caribbean. A thousand years before the main action of the novel, Aycayia was a young, human virgin who resisted marriage: “She didn’t want to be married: a wedding would kill a part of her, so she’d not accepted any man.” While Aycayia’s insistence that marriage might “kill” her could be referring to the high likelihood of death in childbirth, it is actually a loss of autonomy: “Men only wanted to take hold of her freedom and keep it for themselves.” Her refusal to marry makes her a rival for the other women in the village, as their husbands continue to pursue her. The women’s possessiveness of their husbands leads them to curse her, putting her out of their men’s reach forever by sealing her bottom half inside a giant tail and banishing her to the sea.
Aligning with the novel’s feminist critique, the love affair between David and Aycayia reverses and upends many of the familiar narratives and stock imagery of Western mermaid lore. Rather than the mermaid luring the fisherman with her siren song, it is David who tempts Aycayia to him with music: “David was strumming his guitar and singing to himself when she first raised her barnacled, seaweed-clotted head from the flat, grey sea, its stark hues of turquoise not yet stirred.” This quiet moment, a mermaid surfacing from gray water, captures the mixture of wonder and the mundane that is Roffey’s hallmark throughout the novel. The mermaid feels grounded in her surroundings, rather than alien or fantastic. Roffey’s descriptions of Aycayia are strikingly different from the girlish, suspiciously well-groomed mermaids of popular culture and animated films:
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 once lived centuries past, shining at me. I saw she breasts, under the fine scaly suit. I saw webbed fingers and how they dripped with sargassum seaweed. Her hair was full of seaweed too, black black and long and alive with stinging creatures — like she carry a crown on her head of electricity wires. […] Then there was her tail […] Yards and yards of musty silver. It gave she a look of power, like she grow out of the tail itself. I think, then, that this fish-woman must be heavy as a mule. […]
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. They saw that when her diaphragm heaved, it revealed wide slits which were gills and they looked sharp enough to slice a finger off. All the men backed away. Her spine spikes were flat, like the spokes of a folded umbrella, but when they flared and spread, they revealed a mighty dorsal.
Roffey’s language, somehow simultaneously quiet and highly sensory, gives her mermaid depth, wildness, rawness, and texture. Aycayia feels more natural than supernatural, her body inextricable from nature. She moves with muscular power, gleams with sharp appendages, and writhes with other creatures of the sea. When David saves her from captors and she transforms back into a human woman, we see yet more destabilization of dominant mermaid imagery. Disney’s 1984 Splash embedded in popular culture the image of a blonde (and somehow tanned) Daryl Hannah painlessly and swiftly transitioning between legs and tail and unfurling her fins in a bathtub of salted water. In contrast and reverse, Aycayia’s transformation back into a human woman in David’s bathtub is an onerous, earthy process told in delightfully grotesque detail:
Soon, around the tub, there was a litter of fruit skins and pieces of her old self. The nest of sargassum seaweed in her hair began to fall off in clumps and underneath was long, black and knotted dreads. Her ears dripped seawater and small sea insects climbed out. Her nostrils bled all kind of molluscs and tiny crabs. She’d been a home to all kinda small sea creatures, and they were slowly, over days, abandoning her, moving out. […] One day, I woke up early and found her tail on the floor. It was off, completely. Large and ragged and smelling not too good. […] The dorsal came off next, the spikes on her back had been dissolving. They came off the next day, all in a row, like a long spine from the back of a dinosaur, all in one — her sail. It had begun to rot and turn gelatinous.
David cares painstakingly for the mermaid as she changes. He feeds her, treats her wounds, covers her with salt water, cleans her feces, shoos away the living things that crawl from the crevices of her body, and discards the pieces of her that rot and fall away. He tolerates the foul odors she emits and the strange sounds that she makes. He keeps his distance and asks for consent when he must touch her to care for her. In some European mermaid lore, would-be husbands steal something from the mermaid — her comb, her cap, or, in the case of selkies (beautiful women who are seals in the water), her sealskin. As long as this item is hidden from her, the mermaid or selkie is bound to stay on land and serve her captor, keep his home, and have his children. In this tale, however, David helps Aycayia learn to walk again and gives her a pair of sneakers:
He wanted to keep her safe, always. But he also suspected that wasn’t what she necessarily wanted, or needed. In fact, now she had the sneakers, he expected her to disappear some day, just like she’d appeared. […] He wanted her, but he also hoped she could be free to be whatever she wanted.
David’s care and his resistance to trying to contain Aycayia provide a healing redress to the patriarchal and ecological violence of her capture earlier in the novel. The capture of the mermaid by a white tourist and his son in town for a fishing tournament is narrated as a vicious sexual assault. Upon first seeing her, the men marvel initially at the feminine parts of her body, “Did you see her tits? […] Did you see her … pussy bone?” After pulling her into the boat, they are aroused by her strange, injured, feminine form:
Each man felt a deep tug in his crotch. The old man wanted to take out his dick and piss all over her. The younger men fought hard to keep a cockstand from bouncing up in their pants. She was like a magnet. She was a woman hooked, clubbed, half-dead, half-naked and virgin young.
This sexualized violence continues as the fishing team takes her onshore and strings her up alongside other catches of the day. When she disappears (rescued in the night by David), her captor, Thomas Clayson, continues to insist that his conquest gives him ownership of Aycayia, and the right to harm and exploit her however he wants: “He wanted the mermaid back. If not millions, and an auction to a museum, he wanted the bloody thing stuffed and mounted on his wall. He had caught her fair and square. He had papers, a licence to keep what he’d caught.” This logic of possession is not only gendered but also raced, and it justifies violence against Indigenous people, people of color, and the earth.
Aycayia’s abduction from the sea and immersion into contemporary life in St Constance enacts a kind of time travel. Aycayia, a woman from a thousand years in the past, forces the other characters to confront the histories of racial chattel slavery and Indigenous genocide that brought them to the land that they now occupy. Arcadia Rain, the owner and de facto mayor of St Constance, must face her own privilege and complicity when she talks to Aycayia about the town’s history. Arcadia is a white woman who inherited the land that St Constance occupies from her missionary family (who purchased it after emancipation). She speaks a Creole dialect called Black Conch English, has a child with a Black St Constance man, and governs with a light touch. However, her relationship to the people of St Constance still reeks of white paternalism (she is referred to by the town’s adults, and in much of the prose of the novel, as “Miss Rain”).
Roffey interweaves the problematics of Arcadia’s power position with the novel’s discourse on ownership and manhood. The mismatch of power between Arcadia and Life, the man who fathers her child, is what pushes Life away. After he leaves, she figures that “he’d simply had enough of the picong and the talk of ‘house nigger’ in the village, the consequence of loving the white lady up on the hill, lovers since childhood. As Life had grown into a man, their love affair stumbled.” David says more than once that it is because of white dominance that the men of Black Conch tend to leave their women and children: “White families still owned land like they used to and black men like him came and went, looking for the promised freedom of independent living.” Black men in Black Conch are unable to possess, a reality that Arcadia’s life in her big house up on the hill signifies. The novel’s quiet critique of settler colonialism is mostly embedded within these patriarchal dynamics, but it comes into sharper, more critical focus by Aycayia’s presence:
I ask why everybody in Black Conch is black skinned
She told me how black people came
I ask her where are the red people like me
She told me they were mostly all dead and gone, murdered
I learn from Miss Rain
how the Castilian Admiral
MURDER all my people in a very short time
My people long dead
She told me many black people were murdered too
I ask if the Spanish Christians own everything now
She said not any more and turn red in her face
Like the whole thing happen in a short time
Only five hundred years when the world is very old
This all happen quickly
My family own all of this part of the island she say
Land is not to be owned I tell her
Here, Aycayia challenges Arcadia, criticizing the system of land ownership that came with Europeans, a system in which Arcadia is complicit. David’s worldview also shifts as he falls more deeply in love with Aycayia, and he echoes this idea of the wrongness of owning land: “I dream of a quiet place, natural like, and I dream of an island where no man — red, brown, or black — did live, of Black Conch before it have any human footprint on it. It have only garden and nothing to spoil it. No man own it or cultivate it. Not yet.” These interactions between Aycayia and Arcadia provide some confrontation with the colonial violence that has changed the world so much during Aycayia’s banishment to the sea. I have reservations about how delicately this is treated within the novel, especially when the feminist messages within the book are quite overt. Moments in the novel such as repeated comments about the meanness of people throughout the ages and the curious exclusion of whites in David’s reverie above about ownership of land seem to reduce the culpability of white supremacy in the landscape of Black Conch. Roffey takes on the themes of genocide, colonialism, and enslavement — which, in a novel concerned with ownership and possession, is rarely mentioned — with a strangely gentle touch.
I am also perplexed by the novel’s representation of Black women. The only Black female character who plays a major role in the story is David’s neighbor, Priscilla, who pursues and harasses him endlessly:
Priscilla was the meanest woman in the village, in the whole of northern Black Conch, maybe even in the whole island on account of her bad-mindedness and petty behaviour. […] Priscilla had on a short pants and high-heel sandals with her black bra poking out from she vest — cut down at the neck to expose even more of her breasts. Priscilla was pure malice, always on about how much she hate Miss Rain and her stupid deaf-dumb bobolee son. Priscilla try to run me down many times in the past; she was always in my tail for sexing and I never liked she at all; too damn vex all the time. She had big buckteeth like a rat, yet she figure she was hotness self.
Priscilla exists to be a foil to Aycayia and an antagonist to David. I’m very aware that reading texts through the lens of representational politics can be reductive, that antagonists are necessary to plots, and that Black women should get to be villains as well as heroes and everything else. I am aware that the politics around racial versus local, regional, and national identities in the Caribbean are very different than what I understand as an African American born and raised in the United States. But when Arcadia and Aycayia have access to tenderness, sensuality, vulnerability, and a range of experiences and relationships, it feels jarring to have the one major phenotypically black female character in a story set in a phenotypically black town (confirmed by Aycayia’s observation that the people in Black Conch are all “black-skinned”) be depicted as so flat and vile.
David’s appraisal of Priscilla is echoed to a lesser degree in his opinion of other (presumably Black) St Constance women:
He was used to the St Constance women, who knew him too well, who already had his merits and failings marked out, who liked to cuss and criticise and used more direct and earthy ways to seduce his loins. All the men knew all the women around here — in all the ways there was to know.
This way of framing Aycayia against the Black women he knows relies heavily on Aycayia’s “innocence” (which dances uncomfortably close to some tropes around indigeneity and childlike innocence) and Black women’s excessive knowing, and this comes startlingly close to a racialized virgin-whore dichotomy all too familiar to a Black feminist critic.
It is hinted in this passage that David’s comparison of Aycayia to St Constance women is connected to the discourse of manhood in the novel. Perhaps a mermaid from another time and place, a mermaid that he rescued and nursed back into humanity, can see David differently than he thinks St Constance women can see St Constance men, who are prevented by colonialism and racism from fully enacting patriarchal manhood. Perhaps, as readers, we are not supposed to believe or agree with David’s assessment of these women. But a more dimensional, fully drawn Black-female-point-of-view character and more complex interactions with and between Black Conch people might have troubled David’s comments and further developed the book’s conversation around gender. At one point, seeming to be thinking of both Priscilla’s scheming and the women who cursed Aycayia, David asks, “Why women hate other women so? […] Is man fault women treat each other bad? Is we who run them down. We doh like to stay home, mind children. Men bad, so women bad too?” I appreciate this observation about how patriarchy perpetuates itself. But Indigenous women, Black women, and wealthy white women do not all experience patriarchy in the same ways, a fact that fuller portrayals of different characters and their communities (for we also get very little about Aycayia’s social world prior to her curse) might have helped to elucidate.
While an experimental, literary novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch is also unabashedly romantic. A difficult task within romance, it manages to maintain conflict and tension without creating arbitrary obstacles for the couple at its center. The plot moves forward in an organic-feeling way. David finally panics and asks to marry Aycayia, seeking to possess a woman who valued her freedom so much she had been cursed for it. Priscilla plots against her. The white fishermen who caught and lost her have not forgotten her. And the curse, signified throughout the last third of the novel in the laughing of women and gathering of a massive storm, is not done with her yet. So are the complications that build the plot to a satisfying, bittersweet conclusion.
When I tell people, from children to adults, that studying mermaid stories is my current life’s work, they gasp, they sigh, their eyes widen, and their faces light up. No one knows completely what lives in the depths of the ocean. This mystery is probably why the mermaid, out of all the nonhuman beings in fiction, folklore, and popular culture, inspires a particular kind of awe. Roffey takes the mermaid, makes her fleshy, textured, and real, and places her in the milieu of a rich cultural world. She gives us a love story between a fisherman and a mermaid that feels both fresh and timeless. In capturing every detail of the mermaid’s slow, messy transformation back to woman, Roffey speaks to longings that, as a reader, I did not know I had. To have someone care for you rather than take advantage of you in your weakness. For someone to sit with you, wait with you, and marvel at you as you change. For someone to not run away from the messy, the smelly, the sharp parts of you. To love without trying to possess, contain, or own. Yes, I have some questions about a few of Roffey’s choices and depictions. But reading this novel, I also find myself thinking about how I want to be loved, about how I am loving or not loving those in my life. There are those who may need patience and care through their own transformations, and those who may, also, need to be let go.
Dr. Jalondra A. Davis is a Black feminist artist-intellectual, merwomanist Melusine, and fierce warrior mama currently living near the beaches of Southern California.