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Genre Literary Fiction
Format Paperback (borrowed from library)
Publication Date April 2020
Length 272 pages
Content Warnings Graphic violence, sexual assault, themes of racism and colonialism, references to suicide
What It’s About
When David sets out in his fishing boat from the island of Black Conch, on a morning that seems the same as any other, the last thing he expects is to come face-to-face with a mermaid. He always thought such creatures existed only in rumour and legend, but here one stares at his boat in the vulnerable reality of flesh and blood, and he must step in to protect her when American tourists arrive for a hunting trip like no other.
David nurtures trust and then love between himself and the mermaid, desperate to carve out a life for them among the richness and darkness of his island home. Yet it remains to be seen whether this fusion of woman and myth can ever be his to hold onto.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is a powerful example of how magical realism can be used to foreground social issues under a defamiliarising spotlight. The early chapters, which chronicle the mermaid’s capture in sickening detail, are a parable of colonial violence that could be difficult to read.
In fact, the novel feels like a fable throughout, with its relatively simple storyline proving that a convoluted plot isn’t necessary for an impactful read. This mythic tone is deepened by a sense of underlying wisdom:
“I wanted to keep her safe, or so I told myself, but maybe I fool myself too; maybe ‘keep’ was the problem. I learn things hard and slow. Man, you need to give deep feelings of affection and care, not keep them.”~ Monique Roffey, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’
I can be sceptical about experimental writing styles, often finding them a little pompous. The Mermaid of Black Conch is far from written in straightforward prose – the mermaid’s perspective is in verse form, alongside diary entries and dialogues rich in oral tradition and eye dialect.
The result is a gorgeous and sensual tone, enticing readers to immerse themselves in the novel’s ethereal concept. Nothing else would have breathed life into the mysterious and magical Black Conch! I found that the multitude of voices brought into play helped each character to become fully realised and kept the plot moving forward too.
Diversity and Representation
This novel is deeply rooted in Caribbean culture, voices, myth, and history. By simply asking the question ‘what if…‘ magical realism opens up a stark new angle from which to examine the enduring trauma of colonialism and white supremacy.
The story also features positive deaf representation in the loveable and confident character of Reggie.
- Sexuality & desire
- The body
Beyond the Book
One of the themes that I loved to see explored in The Mermaid of Black Conch was the multitude of ways in which a woman’s body may be figured as desirable. David is initially attracted to the mermaid for her strangeness and the powerful way in which she takes up space (feat. sharp teeth and a huge, muscular tail!) This makes a refreshing change from conventions that measure a woman’s attractiveness by her ability to shrink.
If you’re reading The Mermaid of Black Conch as a book club pick or just looking to ponder the story in a little more depth, these questions should help get you started:
1. The mythic themes and underlying wisdom make The Mermaid of Black Conch feel almost like a fable. If you approach the novel from this angle, what do you think the ‘message’ of the fable would be? Or is it too complex to pin down?
2. Did the lyrical, experimental, polyvocal writing style help you connect with the characters and setting?
3. What was your opinion of the story’s ending? Did it surprise you? Would you have wanted a different finale?
“Womanhood was a dangerous business if you didn’t get it right.”~ Monique Roffey, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’
Read If You would like to be enticed into a sensual and alluring magical realism novel.
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You may also like: Circe by Madeline Miller.
Have you read The Mermaid of Black Conch? What other magical realism books would you recommend? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!