After two decades of splashing around in the shallows of success, Monique Roffey was taking no chances with The Mermaid of Black Conch. The novel, which won the Costa book of the year award on Tuesday, is written in a Creole English and uses a patchwork of forms, from poetry to journal entries and an omniscient narrator, and “employs magical realism to the max”. Even its title was against it, she realised. “You’re either going to read a novel about a mermaid or you aren’t.”
Any one of these, she says, would scare away most publishers. So when one, the independent Peepal Tree Press, did bite, she launched a crowdfunder to enable her to hire her own publicist. It’s a mark of the esteem in which the 55-year-old author and university lecturer is held by those familiar with her work that 116 people chipped in, raising £4,500 within a month. Then, two weeks before the novel was due to be published, the UK went into lockdown, shutting bookshops and forcing the cancellation of a tour that was particularly important for a writer who has always swum between two continents and two cultures.
Roffey was born in Trinidad to a British father and an Egypt-born mother of mixed European and Levantine heritage, who settled on the island in the early 1950s. All but two of her five previous novels have been set in the region. None have been as stylistically adventurous as Mermaid, so the news on Tuesday that it had won the Costa book of the year – a UK prize designed to reward accessibility – was a shock. “I’m flabbergasted. We’re all flabbergasted, completely,” she says. “It’s Caribbean novel. There are so many things about it that made me think, ‘Oh, this book will live its life in the margins. It will live a quiet life.’”
The novel tells the story of a mermaid who is rescued by a young fisherman on a small Caribbean island after being pulled from the sea by American tourists. Into its 320 richly allusive pages, Roffey packs a series of love affairs and a picture of ancient hatreds which cascade down from a history of colonisation.
Roffey started “dreaming my mermaid” up a long time ago while observing the fishing culture on the north coast of Trinidad and Tobago. Looking more widely into mermaid mythology around the world, she found that it was frequently associated with the casting out of the beautiful and the young. In The Mermaid of Black Conch, the mermaid Aycayia is a beautiful girl of the indigenous Taino people, who was transformed into a mermaid by jealous women in her tribe, which was itself later wiped out by Spanish conquistadors.
Arriving on land in 1976, Aycayia finds friendship with the spliff-smoking David, and Arcadia Rain, a white woman who owns most of the island’s property and lives in a mansion on the hill with her deaf son. Between them, they teach Aycayia to speak Creole, American sign language and “the English that is written in books”.
But Aycayia is not the only outcast: Arcadia Rain also has an uneasy perch in local society, abandoned by the black father of her son because he was unable to reconcile himself with life in a big colonial house. “Hatred,” she thinks. “The great tragic past. Her family had not been the owners of slaves, but they had benefited from the whole damn thing, like it or not.”
“I know numerous people like Arcadia Rain, the remnants of the plantocracy whose estates have fallen into disrepair, and they’re not bad people but they’re cursed with this legacy of horror,” says Roffey. Her own background was different, as the child of a father who arrived to take up a lowly clerical job for a shipping company.
It’s not a coincidence that both of the novel’s most obvious outcasts are women – nor that its final reckoning is initiated by another. “Why women hate the other women so?” wonders David. “Is man fault women treat each other bad?” No, replies Arcadia, “Sometimes people just have a malicious temperament.”
It’s really not as simple as that, Roffey points out: “I think if you unravel female jealousy, you find the patriarchy. It’s a competition for the alpha male, and we’ve ever been thus. Our patriarchy is highly internalised.”
One result of that internalisation has been the “madwoman in the attic trope”, which was transported into Caribbean literature by Jean Rhys via her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which reinvents the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre as a white Creole. “I think we’ve had enough of this historic, hysterical Freudian woman,” says Roffey. “I have every respect for Rhys, but we need new, different types of characters coming out of the region.
Her own depictions have ranged from French Creoles to the protagonist of her 2009 novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. Shortlisted for the Orange prize, it was a story of ex-colonial immigrants like Roffey’s own mother, who became well-known for cycling around the island on a green bike that she had been given as a wedding present.
Roffey finished Mermaid in 2018 before either #MeToo or Black Lives Matter had come into wider consciousness. “But if you’re a writer from the Caribbean, these ideas are not new,” she says. “I think every writer – and particularly somebody with pale skin – understands that they are writing into these conversations. Always. Right back, we have the most firebrand of writers who have been saying black lives matter and being incredibly audacious in answering back to the established canon. So I come from that tradition of being conscious of a colonised world.”
But, she adds, there’s a nuanced conversation to be had globally around whiteness that is only just beginning. “Not all white people are the same, not all white women are the same. I relate to that. It’s quite hard if you’re a pale-skinned Caribbean writer to really say what you think, for fear of being orphaned by your own kind. But we need to unpack and unpick so much. We’re all very conscious of history, and most of us are self-critical. We’re a tiny canon within a canon, and we deserve a voice.”
• The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey is published by Peepal Tree Press. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com.