Set in a tiny Caribbean village in the 1970s, this charming yet clear-eyed romance begins with a fisherman, David, lazily awaiting his catch only to snare a centuries-old mermaid, Aycayia, cursed by women jealous of her beauty. She’s drawn to the sound of the guitar he’s strumming; he wonders if he’s been smoking too many spliffs.
The bittersweet plot kicks in when their regular secret meetings are brought to an end by Thomas and Hank, a Florida father and son trawling island waters in the hope of bagging first prize in a fishing contest. Suddenly, they’re thinking big – a sale to the Smithsonian, the cover of Time – but don’t reckon with David’s plan to rescue her...
Roffey cuts between these characters and the various other islanders who stick their oar into the affair, including a venal police chief eyeing a quick buck by helping Thomas and Hank take back what they regard as their property, and Miss Rain, a white landowner whose attempt to do the right thing is hampered by the fact that her ancestors profited from the legacy of slavery. We also get snippets of rough-hewn poetry from Aycayia’s point of view (“the Yankee men/ have big big boat/ Frighten bad I swim down down”) as well as David’s recollections 40 years after the episode: “I am an ol’ man now, and sick sick so I cyan move much, sick so I cyan work ... so I go write my story.”
What makes the novel sing is how Roffey fleshes out these mythical goings-on with pin-sharp detail from the real world, as Aycayia, hidden away in David’s bedroom, navigates the perils (and pleasures) of life on land. After her tail rots, she relearns to walk in an old pair of David’s green suede Adidas. Her nostrils bleed “all kind of molluscs and tiny crabs”. David worries that the smell and the noise of her wordless song might attract nosy neighbours, not least Priscilla, whose mean-spirited meddling injects a dose of malevolent comic energy into the action.
Ultimately, this is the archetypal story of a disruptive outsider whose arrival alters a community by revealing it to itself, not always happily. For Thomas, dismayed by his poetry-reading son, Aycayia’s appearance represents a chance to assert his masculinity; the novel’s uglier moments involve the instincts of men intent on her defilement. But there’s sweetness, too: a shared love of bass-heavy reggae allows Aycayia to form a friendship with a deaf 10-year-old, while David learns to separate sexual desire from his desire for possession.
All the same, The Mermaid of Black Conch is no fairytale and there’s a limit to how well Aycayia’s story can end. “Womanhood was a dangerous business if you didn’t get it right,” someone thinks. You don’t have to squint too hard to see the magic-realist shenanigans of this playful Pygmalion narrative as a means of sugaring that rather bitter pill.
• The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey is published by Peepal Tree Press (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15