Jess Sturman-Coombs reviews Monique Roffey’s novel “The Mermaid of Black Conch.”
There is no romance quite like Monique Roffey’s “The Mermaid of Black Conch”. This is a love story set at sea. Apt because that is just how it makes you feel, both physically and emotionally, with its push and pull, in and out, up and down. I read this in just a few sittings and within twenty-four hours. I think it is interesting that, for a writer, there will naturally be a temptation to hide or obscure the direction of a story, leaving space for possibility and prediction. But Roffey, like Markus Zusak in “The Book Thief”, has chosen to forewarn her readers of what is to come, demonstrating total confidence in the ability of her tale to captivate and keep her readers engaged. The tragedy for the reader is in knowing that the story can only go one way if it is to avoid undermining the power of an ancient rune. Instead, The Mermaid of Black Conch achieves on a whole other level, staying true to itself without compromising on impact.
The prose is musical, elegantly poetic, and laps at the senses via three cleverly distinct voices: the narrator who moves this story along at a steady pace, David the sweetest of Black Conch fisherman, and Aycayia the soulful ill-fated mermaid from some other place entirely. Despite this back and forth there is no jarring; it is easy to move between tellings, to hear each point and perspective from this perfectly formed narrative triangle. I found myself entranced by the style and fluency, as much as the fantasy.
The setting is slow and lush, full of colour and texture, which makes it beautifully three dimensional, with a feeling of movement that lifts and carries you through. There is beauty in the grimness too. The battle out at sea is exhausting and Roffey does not feel inclined to save us from it, taking her time and elevating how painful it is to observe. As the reader, you stand by and watch it unfold, horrified by the carnal pleasure it triggers for those involved in the hunt of something so gentle and innocent. It feels like whaling. It feels like trophy hunting. It feels like an utter tragedy. It took me back to how I felt at the removal of Aslan’s mane in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Man overpowers beast and, on that deck and jetty, fantasy very much merges with the cold brutalness of reality.
But it is not just the behaviour of man that is familiar. Women too demonstrate their capacity for jealousy, spite, and malice. Your heart bleeds for Aycayia and her eternal curse. As your thoughts stay with this girl, forever lonely at sea, you are thankful for the friends that help her to find herself, be herself and free herself. They are with her through the trauma of change, of mind, body, and place. For Cinderella, the clock was always going to strike midnight, and the clock is always ticking for Aycayia. With the imminent arrival of Rosamund, the weather isn’t the only thing that’s changing.
So what is this story about? For me, it is about discovery, loss, rebirth, humanity, belonging, identity, gender, power, liberty, nurture, greed, privilege, and love. Mostly, it is about love.