Book Review: The Mermaid of Black Conch

The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey, is set in a tiny Caribbean village where the history of occupation and slavery still rubs raw amongst residents. Many are of mixed race and interrelated, with few secrets possible. Much of the land is still owned by a woman of English descent.

The story is told from the point of view of a local fisherman, David Baptiste. It opens in 1976 when David goes out on the water early to smoke ganja and strum his guitar while waiting for a catch. A mile or so out from the bay he drops anchor. It is here that he first spots a mermaid.

A few weeks later two Yankees bring their whaler to the island for a fishing contest. They hire local men as crew. David is out on his boat, whose engine the mermaid now knows and is drawn to. Perhaps it was this that distracted her from the potential danger. After a fierce battle with the hunters she is caught, much to the dismay of the villagers. The Yankees see nothing but the money to be made from selling their rare catch for public display or research. Along with the fish landed by other contestants, the mermaid’s injured body is strung up in the bay. It is here that David finds and rescues her. His actions will change everything. The mermaid had once been a young women but was cursed by jealous wives whose husbands were drawn to her dancing. She carries this curse, and jealousy stalks her once again.

David is no stranger to women but has never felt attracted to one as he is to the rescued mermaid who is now transforming back into human form. He tries to hide her in his home but privacy is not something his neighbours respect. What is happening comes to the attention of Arcadia Rain, who lives in the big house on the hill with her deaf son, Reggie. When Reggie forms a bond with the mermaid, Arcadia offers to help David by teaching her to speak their language.

Much of the tale is written in the form of a journal in which David looks back on these momentous events from his current perspective in 2015. Melancholic undercurrents prepare the reader for what are sad yet inevitable developments. On a small island with limited prospects there will always be those willing to act cruelly if they believe there is money to be made. Add to the mix a mean and spurned potential lover and events are unlikely to go well.

The narrative includes sections written in the local vernacular. The mermaid’s thoughts are presented in a plaintive, sing song style. Along with evocative descriptions of the island and local culture, the reader is transported to a place whose history is gradually revealed. The mermaid’s recollections along with the underlying resentments of current residents expose the oppression Arcadia Rain represents.

This is a vibrant, multi-layered and beautifully written tale that will leave the reader longing for man to behave with more compassion. The fully rounded characters bring to life the conflicting dimensions of decisions and behaviour – that good and bad can go hand in hand.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peepal Tree Press.

Book Review: The Frequency of Magic (DNF)

Anthony Joseph’s previous book, Kitch, was shortlisted for last year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize (followers will know how much I rate this literary award, which I was delighted to help judge in 2017). Kitch was the only book on the list that I wasn’t sent, which is fine; publishers choose who they wish to review their books based on differing criteria. In the run-up to the winners’ announcement I heard the author read from his work and was intrigued. However, time moves on, more books arrive, and I never did manage to pick up Kitch.

Recently I was asked if I would be interested in reviewing Joseph’s forthcoming release, The Frequency of Magic, and was happy to accept a copy to find out what I thought of the author’s writing. Unfortunately, if this book is typical, it turns out it is not for me. It is rare for me to DNF any title – the only other one I have reviewed is Infinite Jest (I mention this to demonstrate that me disliking a book does not mean other readers will feel the same).

I read one hundred pages – thirty-one chapters – of The Frequency of Magic before deciding to call it a day. Despite starting out well, reading became too much of a chore. Please bear in mind that it is possible the story becomes more compelling than this first third suggests.

At the centre of the tale is a butcher named Raphael who lives on Million Hills in rural Trinidad. For the past forty-one years he has been writing a book. It is to be one hundred chapters long with each chapter containing one thousand words. The characters all have connections to where he lives.

The Frequency of Magic is divided into one hundred chapters. Each could be one thousand words long – I didn’t count but in length that feels about right. This should make the book easier to read – chapters are short and each contains a vignette about a character whose experiences are returned to subsequently. Plot progression is not linear but names recur. The characters know they are being written about and some want to know what Raphael has planned for them. There are also occasional references to Anthony Joseph. It is all very meta.

This structure works fine, as does the use of local vernacular. Nothing of these aspects appears overdone even if it was framed this way for the sake of it.

I was pleased to be learning more about life in rural Trinidad, amongst those who have little materially. Their houses are basic. Ablutions occur outside within view of neighbours. Many of the families are related.

Amongst the cast are a musician and an actor who have left the island to work in America. Mostly though the events described occur on or around Million Hills. It remained unclear to me if the characters were based on Raphael’s neighbours or were figments of his imagination – this didn’t matter for the story to work.

So, we have here a story about a man writing a story and the story he is writing. Ordinary lives are depicted. The voice and evocative setting are interesting. What killed my engagement was the continual references to base thinking and living.

Women are described as possessors of thighs, breasts and private parts whose smell and use is repeatedly referenced. There are regular descriptions of: physical desire, sex, hardness and ejaculations. I would have welcomed some relief with evocations of the beauty of the place. Instead, the residents focus on: their cars, fights, and other forms of violence. Drugs are taken, animals killed. There is thoughtless injury and frequent death.

Husbands leave wives who then have to service old men with decrepit bodies in order to put food on the table for their children (I wondered why no other options were considered – female cooperatives? creative endeavours? – perhaps I am too naive for the reality of the area). Husbands who stay beat their wives and visit prostitutes. Use of pornography and triple X rated films are mentioned. Animals suffer; there is an explosion in a pet shop.

I found it hard to feel sympathy, even for the murdered, given how they lived. When certain characters realise how their lives are being written they blame others, as if hurting them can force a change of personal trajectory.

The vivid descriptions of bloody encounters alongside other bodily excretions became too much for this reader.

There was mention in the publisher’s blurb of a love story. Few of the couplings appeared to be based on love.

Occasional nuggets exist. Children playing on the hills relish their freedom and observe how those in wealthier areas are kept behind walls and gates. One female character manages to deflect the attention of the men who try to have sex with her – although her promising beginning was not sustained.

The novel is described as offering gritty realism, and perhaps this is how men in this part of the world think and live. The depiction led to me suffering a severe failure of empathy. I hope that other readers prove less sensitive to the habits detailed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peepal Tree Press.

Guest post by independent publisher, Peepal Tree Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Peepal Tree Press who published Kitch by Anthony Joseph. On their website we are told that Peepal Tree

“aims to bring you the very best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK.”

“We publish fiction, poetry and a range of academic and non-fiction titles. Our goal is to publish books that make a difference”

Do please read on to find out more.

Founded in 1985 by our Managing Editor, Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree press had humble beginnings. Our first title, Backdam People by Rooplall Monar, was typeset on a daisywheel printer after hours in college. In the last 34 years, we have brought readers around 350 titles by Caribbean, Asian, and Black British authors, making a name for ourselves as the leading publisher of Caribbean literature.

The inspiration for our name came to Jeremy in the form of a poem by Indo-Guyanese poet Jacob Chinapen. In the poem, workers tell stories under a peepal tree after a day at work. The peepal tree, which originated in India but was brought to the Caribbean, seemed to Jeremy to be a perfect metaphor for something transplanted – symbolic of putting down roots. And so, Peepal Tree Press was born, out of a desire to help Backdam People be published in a time of Guyanese oppression.

Since then we have survived on various shoestrings, prioritizing great literature that says something new to the world, and editing those books with the utmost care. We have evolved through the development of different printing technologies and are now in a place where we are publishing 20 or so books a year, members of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, and home to Inscribe, which delivers writer development and support. Peepal Tree is based in Leeds, part of a growing independent publishing sector outside of London and the South East, and a proud founder member of the Northern Fiction Alliance. It has been an honour to have the brilliant Anthony Joseph’s innovative fusion of novel and biography, Kitch, longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Discovering the books on the longlist has been a delight, and prizes like ROFC are hugely valuable in helping readers discover amazing books from indies that they might not otherwise have come across. Similarly, ROFC’s nomination of Marcia Douglas for the 2016 longlist was hugely beneficial to us, attracting new readers.

We hope to continue developing and contributing to conversations about Caribbean literature and culture, publishing wonderful books, and opening up this world to readers and writers. Our new anthology, for example, The Peepal Tree Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories, featured on BBC Radio 4 Open Book, shines a light on a wide range of authors across the Caribbean and its diasporas, with a strong focus on women and LGBT writers. You can see a list of the books we have planned for 2019 here, and look out too for the New Caribbean Voices podcast, launching soon on Soundcloud. We’d love it if you followed us on instagram, twitter, or facebook – or you can even subscribe to our newsletter.

We wish luck to all of the authors longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize.