Review: The Mermaid of Black Conch

It is safe to say that The Mermaid of Black Conch is not Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Some may even say it’s the adult version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale.

In Roffey’s version, Aycayia the mermaid is caught by Yankees fishing in the waters off St. Constance village. Luckily, she is rescued by a local fisherman, David. While she hides out in his home, she slowly retransforms into the woman she used to be.

Aycayia is really a “red woman,” a Taino who was cursed by her peers because of her latent power to seduce their men.

Long story short: This is the archetypal “stranger comes to town” story where the arrival of the mermaid upsets the natural balance of St. Constance and causes a “sea change” in a host of relationships.

In the story, there is also a lot of talk about “sexing” the mermaid because she symbolizes the exotic, the unattainable, what the fishermen have never had.

Roffey’s writing definitely evokes the vibrant colors and lushness of the Caribbean seascape and landscape. I think it’s the perfect summer read, if you want to be transported to a magical-realist version of a Caribbean island.

* DISCLAIMER: I received the book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read The Mermaid of Black Conch? What did you think?

6 novelists from T&T you should know about

“The best way to know the soul of another country is to read its literature.” Amos Oz

Trinidad and Tobago, located at the end of the Caribbean archipelago and very close to the South American continent, is a cultural hotbed. The birthplace of steelpan and calypso is also home to an established and incredibly diverse literary tradition. Many writers from these islands have excelled internationally, writing primarily in English, the nation’s official language. Others have experimented with other native languages such as Trinidadian Creole English with considerable success. Planning on traveling to T&T and want to get to know the culture inside out? Here are 6 classic Trinbagonian authors you should check out.

V.S. Naipaul

Naipaul was born in Trinidad when the island was still a British colony. He won a scholarship to study English at Oxford University and eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. One my favorite books of his is A House for Mr. Biswas, his third novel. Partly inspired by his father’s experiences, the story is set in colonial Trinidad and traces the life of Mohun Biswas, who although “born in the wrong way,” perseveres to release himself from the crippling influence of his in-laws and to build a house for himself and his family. Naipaul’s writing is on point, offering acute and often witty observations of Trinidadian people, culture, and island life during the early 20th century.

Samuel Selvon

Sam Selvon is one of those authors who can write Trinidadian Creole English down pat. I discovered him in high school when I read A Brighter Sun. The Lonely Londoners is another one of his masterpieces, exploring Caribbean immigration to the UK during the late 1940s to the early 1960s, also known as the Windrush Generation. Selvon, a gifted though often overlooked Trinidadian author, like his protagonists, also emigrated to the UK to pursue his dream of writing novels. The Lonely Londoners highlights the humorous yet poignant adventures of Caribbean immigrants in a city plagued with a racism they cannot understand. 

CLR James

Although CLR James is well known as a historian, political activist, and cricket expert, he is also a great novelist. Written in the late 1920s, his classic, Minty Alley, like James Joyce’s Dubliners, tells the stories of working class people living in the cramped alleys and backstreets of Trinidad’s capital city, Port of Spain. This was also the first novel published in England by a black West Indian.

Earl Lovelace

Unlike other writers from Trinidad and Tobago, Earl Lovelace never really left Trinidad to pursue his dream to write fiction. One of his best-known works, The Wine of Astonishment, tells the story of Bonasse, a poor, Shouter Baptist community faced with religious persecution by the colonial government and plagued by the consequences of a cultural invasion by American soldiers during World War Two.  

Merle Hodge

Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey is a bildungsroman of Tee, a motherless girl who is caught between the worlds of two matriarchs, Tantie and Aunt Beatrice. The novel explores the flaws of the country’s education system and the cost of upward social mobility in postcolonial Trinidad.

Michael Anthony

Michael Anthony is one of those authors who put South Trinidad on the literary map. Born and raised in Mayaro, much of his work feature coming-of-age tales of young men living in the seaside community.  His work, particularly Green Days by the River and The Year in San Fernando, depict the pastoral beauty of the countryside and a loss of innocence of the protagonists.


5 books to help you understand the Caribbean

Think the Caribbean is just a sun, sea, and sand playground where rum flows like water and sunsets make you cry?

Think again.

As a traveler, if you really want to understand the region more deeply, read Caribbean literature by Caribbean authors. Dig below the Instagrammable surface of street parties and deserted beaches and you’ll find a very strange place. It’s a place where many were forced to come, whether as slaves or indentured laborers.  Here are my picks to understand the people, the landscape, and culture of the Caribbean.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, a minor character from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as Rochester’s mad first wife from the tropics but Rhys goes deeper. She tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (her real name) and Rochester’s inability to understand his Creole wife and the tropical landscape of the Caribbean. Here’s one of my favorite quotes.

 “I hated the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the rain…I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”

Mimic Men and A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

VS Naipaul is an award-winning writer who often effaces his Trinidadian roots. Some may say that Naipaul has a nihilistic vision of the West Indies. Others say he’s spot on. Take it or leave it, here are my favorite quotes from two of his best books.

Mimic Men

“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”

“We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of  it, with all its reminders of the corruption that same so quickly to the new.”

“I have also hinted at the easiness with which on the morning of arrival I saw through each porthole the blue, green and gold of the tropical island. So pure and fresh! And I knew it to be horribly manmade; to be exhausted, fraudulent, cruel and above all, not mine.”

A Way in the World

“We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank…We were just there, floating.” 

“But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings…But that would only be a fragment of his inheritance, a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”

The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

St Lucian-born Derek Walcott was a literary genius who wrote several poems and plays. His work reflects razor-sharp insight into the region’s divisive colonial and post-colonial past. Although it’s technically not a book, here are a few lines from one of Walcott’s most famous poems about Caribbean history.

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

Roffey is a Trinidadian-born writer based in the UK. Her descriptions of Trinidad and Port of Spain, its capital city, are faultless.

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

“George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat, crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.”