Peepal Tree, 2020
Review by Jane Bryce
Black Conch is the smaller island of a two-island nation in the Caribbean. Knowing that Monique Roffey is from Trinidad alerts us that this might be somewhere like Tobago – a place mostly populated by fishermen, where sea stories have real currency and communities are an eco-system as intertwined as the coral reefs that surround them. Into such a community bursts Aycayia, a thousand-year-old mermaid doomed by an ancient curse to swim the Caribbean for ever. She is rescued by David, a fisherman, from a horrible fate at the hands of two Americans who have pitched up for the annual fishing competition. For the brief period she lives with David, Aycayia re-learns how to be human and discovers the secrets of sexual love. But the curse cannot be avoided, her mermaid identity reasserts itself and she is forced to return to the sea.
Roffey’s great achievement in this novel is to make us believe, wholeheartedly, in her mermaid. No fairy-tale maiden sitting on a plinth with her tail tucked neatly under her, Aycayia is an alien being, a ‘half and half’, with human memories, desires and language, but undomesticated, messy, smelly, a force of nature, irredeemably herself. Her capture is described in shockingly visceral terms, a contest between man and sea-creature reminiscent of Hemingway or Melville in Moby Dick. The prize they heave into the boat, impaled and bleeding, her hair an electric nest of locks, her back spiked with spines rising into a mighty dorsal fin, is host to myriad smaller animals dragged up with her from the depths. As she lies gasping through her gills, leaking seawater, her huge tail thrashing, the fishermen see that what they’ve caught is ‘a fish and a woman welded together’.
The story is told from three perspectives: Aycayia’s broken, elliptical, poetic lines; the journal of her lover, David Baptiste, which gives a retrospective account some forty years after the event; and a third person omniscient narrative set in 1976, the year of her capture. Though this makes for a degree of repetition, it dramatises the rôles of other characters essential to the plot: Miss Rain, the white landowner; Reggie, her deaf son; and finally, Life, Reggie’s missing father. Together they bring back Aycayia’s missing language – Aycayia, meaning Sweet Voice. Reggie teaches her to sign, Miss Rain teaches her Black Conch English; and Aycayia’s memory throws up words from her previous existence as a young Taino woman, before slavery and colonisation. As the narrator tells us, ‘She was ancient and modern, an indigenous woman and becoming a Black Conch Creole.’ A Caribbean hybrid, transcending time, she is all potential.
But her transformation is aborted, the curse prevails, and the community prepares to sell her to the Americans. As David and his friends form a protective guard around Aycayia, the god Huracan marshals all his forces to sweep her away. The departure of Roffey’s mermaid unleashes the elements – a warning to an over-heated world.