Monique Roffey has won the £30,000 Costa book of the year award for her sixth novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, which opens as a fisherman on a Caribbean island sees a “barnacled, seaweed-clotted” mermaid raise her head from the sea.
Suzannah Lipscomb, the historian and broadcaster who chaired the judges, said the novel was “utterly original – unlike anything we’ve ever read – and feels like a classic in the making from a writer at the height of her powers”. Based on a legend from the Taino, an indigenous people of the Caribbean, the novel is a dark love story about fisherman David and Aycayia, a beautiful woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, who has swum the Caribbean for centuries.
“It’s a book that will take you to the furthest reaches of your imagination – we found it completely compelling,” said Lipscomb. “The Mermaid of Black Conch is an extraordinary, beautifully written book – full of mythic energy and unforgettable characters, including some tremendously transgressive women.”
Roffey is a Trinidadian-born British writer who has been shortlisted for the Orange and the Costa prizes in the past. The Mermaid of Black Conch was published by small independent press Peepal Tree, which focuses on literature from the Caribbean, with Roffey turning to crowdfunding to raise money for a publicity campaign for the book in 2019.
“I really wanted this book to be seen and read, so this time last year we were all ready to go, then Covid-19 hit us all and the book fell into a black hole and disappeared, got swallowed up. And now this. It’s been a rollercoaster,” said Roffey. “I’m 55 now, I’ve been writing for 20 years – really there’s no superlative that I could use that’s enough to describe what a great breakthrough this is.”
Peepal Tree, which won the prestigious TS Eliot poetry prize last year with British-Trinidadian dub poet Roger Robinson’s collection A Portable Paradise, is rushing through a reprint of The Mermaid of Black Conch, which beat titles including Lee Lawrence’s memoir about his quest to find justice for his mother, The Louder I Will Sing, and Ingrid Persaud’s debut Love After Love to win the overall book of the year. The award, for the year’s “most enjoyable” book, pits the winners of five categories – first novel, novel, biography, poetry and children’s book – against each other, and has been won in the past by Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
Lipscomb said the judges deliberated for three hours before choosing Roffey as their winner. “The novel feels like one of those stories you think you must have known before, because it already feels like a classic,” she said. “The mermaid is pulled out of the sea in this really arresting scene that, pun fully intended, hooks you in the novel just as much as she is hooked by the fisherman. And then it’s a question of whether she could become a woman again, and live in a modern Caribbean society and all the questions that raises. When we think of mermaids, because of Disney we think of fairytales, but this is a visceral mermaid – as she becomes a woman parts of her tail fall off and she smells. It’s very evocative in terms of the physicality.”
Roffey first imagined her mermaid while staying in Charlotteville, Tobago, in 2013. After a fishing competition, she saw a marlin hanging above the jetty, and dreamed that night that the fish was a mermaid who had been dragged from the sea. Later, she learned of the legend of Aycayia, or Sweet Voice. Her story, which she began to write in 2016, is set in in 1976, in the tiny village of St Constance on the island of Black Conch.
“I think when you work with legend, you’re pricking that nerve of the collective unconscious. But old stories, they are flawed, especially if they’re starring women. They’ll always be about female surrender, or teaching the woman a lesson, or something to do with controlling women,” said Roffey. “The mermaid is cursed and exiled and denied her erotic rite of passage in the old story, so I got to change that, and give her a love story. And when she goes back, she has beaten the curse. I’m trying to say ‘OK. Let’s bring her out of the sea again. Let’s give her what she’s been denied.’”
Roffey was announced as winner at a virtual awards ceremony hosted by the presenter Penny Smith. Lipscomb was joined on the judging panel by television and radio presenter Angellica Bell, poet Zaffar Kunial, actor and writer Stephen Mangan, book vlogger Simon Savidge and writers Horatio Clare, Jill Dawson, Sadie Jones and Patrice Lawrence. The late Irish poet Eavan Boland’s final collection The Historians, and the children’s author Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, had also been in the running for the overall prize.