For all the depth of expression in Monique Roffey’s writing, The Mermaid of Black Conch never feels like it dwells too long in the realm of the intangible. Full of lean, elegant, evocative prose that never overstays its welcome or drifts too far from its narrative, this finely honed novel about belonging, alienation and the enduring power of stories moves with the breathtaking rush of an ocean wave.
Roffey’s eponymous character, Aycayia, was once a woman but is now cursed to live her life as a creature of the sea—until a fisherman named David lures her to the shore with his song, inadvertently drawing her into the clutches of a group of wealthy American tourists. To save Aycayia the pain of becoming a tourist attraction or worse, David takes her into his home, where she slowly begins to shift back into human form. What happens next reverberates throughout the entire community on the island of Black Conch.
Roffey’s tale alternates among different points of view with the lithe dexterity of a fishtail, revealing David’s perspective on the present as well as his reflections on the past, while giving voice to a local matriarch who learns the secret of the mermaid’s presence. We also hear from Aycayia herself, who speaks to the reader in raw, deeply emotional bursts of verse.
Like her title character, Roffey’s prose is a shape-shifting, living thing, moving through emotional highs and lows with an almost mercurial grace. Roffey achieves this flow state with astonishing economy, which enables her to linger on existential questions: Who are you if everyone who remembers you is gone? Who do you become if people choose to reshape you? Such questions—as well as the remarkable way Roffey explores them through the eyes of a compelling cast of characters—make The Mermaid of Black Conch, winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year Award, a gripping dark fairy tale that any fan of contemporary fantasy will happily swim through.