The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has a very interesting back story, one I think is worthwhile sharing here, before I look at the book itself. Firstly the book was crowdfunded back in September 2019 to get into print, with an acknowledgement page appearing at the back of the book thanking the people who funded “this book out into the world.” Since then it has received rave reviews in the mainstream media and has appeared quickly on three respected Prize lists.


In October 2020, the novel was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, and Award established by the University of London, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. The annual prize of £10,000 is awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” It didn’t win the Prize, losing out to ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison.

In November 2020 the novel was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, an award for the most enjoyable books of the year by writers resident in the UK and Ireland” and last month it was named winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year.

Then in February 2021 the book was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, an Award to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Small presses being defined as having fewer than five full-time employees.

A flurry of Award announcements and interestingly deemed not “daring” enough for the Goldsmiths but “enjoyable” enough to win the Costa.

The Publisher

As the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize attests, this novel is published by a small press, less than five full time employees. Peepal Tree books “a small publisher that has consistently supported international Caribbean writing for 35 years.” Two days after the Costa announcement the press had sold 12,000 copies, having to move to a different printer to cope with demand.

There is an interesting article, and interview with founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting available at ‘The Bookseller’ where he speaks of their list of 450 titles still being available, how ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ was crowdfunded to even get printed and the demands of a small publisher having a best-selling title in their catalogue.

The novel

We were both lost people.

David Baptiste is a fisherman in the small Caribbean enclave of Black Conch, one day whilst smoking a spliff and strumming his guitar on his boat, he spots a mermaid, Aycayia. A young girl who has been cursed for her beauty and temptation of men and sealed up with a tail and forced to swim the oceans for eternity. During a big game fishing competition she is caught by “those white men from Florida”.

This novel is told in a variety of voices, excerpts from David’s journal, short innocent lyrical poem like musings from Aycayia and the omniscient narrator, using local language and slang:

The Black Conch men, Nicholas and Short Leg, backed away from the stern. Like Nicer, they knew this was wrong. They fraid bad jumbie get ketch. They didn’t want to help. They were lost for words and for what to do. The white men wanted to pull this creature out of the sea. But this fish was half-woman, plain enough. Everyone had heard of the mermen in Black Conch waters, but a merwoman? No. She carried with her bad luck, at best, and her hair had frightened them – like she could kill you with just one lash from those tentacles. She could poison them all. They’d seen spikes on her back, dorsal spikes. Scorpion fish spikes, They had seen a bloody, raging woman on the end of the fishing line and now these white men wanted to bring her in. Nah, boy, they all said to themselves.

More than a simple love story, although the cover does say “a love story”, this is a complex study revealing misogyny, sex, the colonization and maltreatment of indigenous peoples, the destruction of the environment, modern day man’s move away from spiritual connection to their environment and the USA’s domination of the Caribbean amongst many subjects, all wrapped up in a tale of David Baptiste and Aycayia’s love.

The locals see the catch of a mermaid as potential bad luck, the Florida fishermen see the potential financial rewards. David sees his friend from the ocean, all strung up like a trophy catch and has to release her:

The old man, Thomas Clayson, had spent a second day at sea. He’d taken a rifle with him, this time, and some marine flares in case they got into trouble, also an axe and a cutlass as back up to the gun. He would shoot her if need bel that would be the end of it. He’d shot big game before. He’d shot a lion in South Africa, once. The head had been stuffed and mounted and was now above his desk in his den at home. He’d shot a buffalo in the Yukon, a female too; he’d even shot a grizzly bear, once, up in the Rockies. He would shoot the bitch, no messing, bring her in. No beers on the jetty; he’d take her straight, by truck, to the other end of the island, to the port at English Town, where she would be tagged and photographed and packed on ice and taken to the larger island/ There, she would be airlifted back to Florida. This time, he knew what he was up against; a big, bad motherfucker of a mermaid. He paid his crew double. He was furious over the theft of his catch, with the incompetence of the villagers, and mostly with his weak-minded sissy of a son.

There are interlocking love stories, abandoned single mothers, deaf children with connections to the environment and weird happenings, such as the skies raining fish, a wonderful blend of folklore, romance, and a race against time. Aycayia’s short melodic interludes dragging you back to simpler times:

I swam away, the dive deep
My terror was ENORMOUS
I swam but I still ketch
I want to go down to die

Enough shame put on my head
I was a human woman once
some thousand cycles past
Cursed to be lonely
with no love

They curse me good
Goddess Jagua was the goddess of their curse
She keep me lonely all those years

I miss my life in Black Conch
I was human woman again
after they ketch me good

There is also the underlying uneasiness of a “home”, is the mermaid’s home back on land from where she was banished, is it the sea? Are David’s roots in Black Conch? Is the white overseer’s place Black Conch? This pervading sense of displacement.

Baptiste is plantation owner name, French man name from way back. Yuh think I happy with that? I figure my real name would never be known to me, a mystery.

A wonderful blend of readability and prescience, a blend of tragic love story, environmental warning, folklore, with the pace of a thriller. A worthy winner of the Costa Prize and it is magnificent to see a novel that had crowdfunding beginnings, find a small publisher and then find success.


A Lover’s Discourse – Xiaolu Guo – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

All the romantic stories are flawed.

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese born British novelist and filmmaker, her novel ‘ Village of Stone’  (translated by Cindy Carter) was shortlisted for the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (an award that merged with the Booker International Prize and was disbanded after 2015), and was nominated for the Dublin Literary Awards, other books have been nominated or won awards such as the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Costa Book Award and the Baliey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her film ‘She, a Chinese’ premiered at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival and it won the highest honour, the Golden Leopard.

Earlier works include ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, inspired by Roland Barthes work and it is no accident that this novel shares a title with one of Barthes’ works. The epigraph:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Roland Barthes)

There are a number of reviews of this work in the public domain that explain the linkages to Barthes work of the same name, so I won’t go into those details here, however I will point out one diversion from the novel’s structure that I found interesting.

Each chapter opens with a short one or two sentences of conversation, which is repeated in the chapter itself, discourse generally between the two lovers in the story. The repetition of language that we see referenced in the epigraph, however there is one chapter that uses a Barthes quote, not conversation, as the opening:

An Unknown Language

The murmuring mess of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection…Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality. (Roland Barthes)

The unknown language around me. The murmuring mass around me. Except that this was not a murmuring mass in Japan, this was a loud mass in Italy. This language was not too foreign for you, and you could make out many words, especially from the food menus. But it was foreign for me. Even though this culture uses the same twenty-six Latin letters, just like most European languages – the same alphabet. But I didn’t come from this alphabet. I came from the non-alphabetic. I came from ideograms. I came from 50,000 characters. Each character is composed with many symbols and strokes, like a tangled forest of meanings.
Also, I didn’t feel this ‘delicious protection’ that Barthes felt. The only protection for me would be to really try to
understand the foreign language. So that I, a secondary citizen in a white European world, would not downgrade into a tertiary citizen. But I know that even if one day I could master a foreign language – one of the major European languages – I would still not become a primary citizen of the West.

This is a novel of language, a story of identity, alienation, community and exile. It is brought home by the very structure, in the West we say “North, South, East and West” in Chinese the sequence is “East, South, West and North” and in this novel the first four parts are “West, South, East, North”, displacement, sequentially awkward. The following four parts of the novel are “Down, Up, Left, Right” and whilst the parts roughly align geographically (eg. “Down” the lovers are in Australia), I feel these headings are used to highlight our protagonist’s’ inability to settle, find a home.

This is the story of a Chinese student in Britain, pre/post Brexit, completing her PhD in film, her “project” a documentary about a village and its inhabitants in southern China. A village of two-thousand uneducated workers who have transformed themselves into master copyists. (“They could now reproduce a Monet, Chagall, and da Vinci at the drop of a hat.”) She falls in love with an Australian/German, and the novel follows their journeys, discourses.

However it is not the simple love narrative that is at play here, you are immediately forced into facing the fact that, as Europeans (or in my case white colonial descendent) we have no concept of other’s lives, cultures:

‘Wednesday is a bit tight for me. But I can try,’ you said. ‘Hope the food isn’t too spicy.’
I paused for a second, and thought you must be one of those hypersensitive northern Europeans who couldn’t eat anything hot. You might even be a vegan, who eats tasteless food. No salt in your meals either, because of high blood pressure. I would find out.

This is also a novel of language, the emotional attachment we have to words, there’s numerous examples of looking at translations of words from German, or Chinese that have no similar words in English.

There has been this feeling of wu yu – wordlessness and loss of language – which had enveloped me. It reminded me of something I read in one of Barthes’s books. He described how he felt when he visited Japan. The strange signs and sounds. The miscommunication and the silence. The Japan of my world was London, and the strange signs and sounds were from Britain. In my flat, I had not spoken for some days. My flatmate had gone back to Italy to see her family. Four days, alone, in this enclosed place. I listened to the radio, there seemed to be only two types of news: Brexit and sports. Neither could I connect to, not could I participate.

Throughout there are metaphors and allegories about finding a connection to a place, here, in Italy, oak trees growing atop of Tuscan tower:

As we were leaving, I reached out my hand and touched one of the skinny oak trees, rooted on top of the tower. It trembled in the cruel wind as if it were trying to speak to me. I was disappointed by the sight of it. The tourist guide said these oaks were supposed to be old and even ancient, but in reality they were just skinny young oaks, struggling to stay rooted on top of a vicious tower. They needed real roots, real soil, real ground! I could hear their screaming and cries in the wind.

An interesting novel, where I found the concrete experiences of the protagonist struggling to understand concepts such as “referendum”, “Brexit” an enlightening exploration of displacement and alienation. The exploration of language “rubbing one language against the other” was subtle and moving. The lover’s tale? The heavy allegory? A tad overworked (allegory) or too shallow (relationship). An interesting exploration and structure for a novel, for mine one that is ultimately a disappointing whole, but then again “all romantic stories are flawed.”

Mr Beethoven – Paul Griffiths – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…

Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, aged 56, however Paul Griffiths’ speculates that Beethoven lives into the 1830’s taking up a commission, made by the Boston Handel & Haydn Society, to compose a Biblical Oratorio based on the Book of Job.  Not only does Paul Griiffiths’ speculative work imagine that Beethoven lives longer, and he continues to compose more, the novel imagines the composer travelling to the US to fulfil these obligations. Due to his profound deafness he tees up with a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, a young girl named Thankful, who teaches him how to use sign language and who acts as his interpreter.

This is the basic premise of Paul Griffiths’ novel; however it is not only in the speculative tale that the riches prevail here. Griffiths is a former music critic of ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘The New York Times’ and, author of ‘Let Me Tell You’ a first-person narration using only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet. He also contributed to the 2019 collection ‘The Penguin Book of Oulipo’, the literary constraints applied in this book are rich and varied, it is through the Oulipean constraints and musical knowledge where Griffiths’ book excels.

The novel opens with a past tense chapter, Beethoven is aboard a vessel travelling to the USA, we then move to research of possible vessels, “one sailing for Boston in 1833 from continental Europe, and from a port that would have been accessible at the time from Vienna without quite some difficulty.” Griffith lands on the brig Florida and using the “Familysearch website” comes up with a list of fellow passengers.

Throughout the novel there are signs of meticulous research, I assume it is all correct as I am not going to check it, Beethoven moving to a country estate owned by the Quincy’s to continue his work allows for rich research of the homestead, the extended family and more and when this research is mixed with playful constraints the book becomes an entertaining and unexpected read.

As advised in the ‘Notes’, “Words attributed to Beethoven, throughout; are taken as complete clauses – and, in most cases, complete sentences – from his (translated) letters”. We have chapters, longer than usual, that are a single sentence (Chapter 38) and we even have the readers interrupting the author;

Sorry, but we have to stop you there. You keep teasing us with this “great work” while offering as little information about it as you can get away with. Like these characters who are presumably from the Handel and Haydn Society, perhaps Richardson, Chickering and some other, we are being left in the dark. We know, yes, that this is an oratorio his is supposed to be writing, the “great composer,” as you archly call him, or “distinguished visitor,” or whatever else to avoid giving him his name, which of course we all know, which you had to divulge here and there, for the purposes of your story. Yes, what exactly are the purposes of your story? Do you want to tell us that? Or is that not part of your plan? If there is a plan.

There are chapters where the oratorio’s text is presented on the left-hand page and the action in the crowd appears on the right-hand page. There are letters and cryptic relations, a widow muse? Monologues revealing the detailed research (for example, a walk where the composer, although tone deaf, is addressed about the history and the surrounds)

You fill this book with information. As if to taunt us, you tell us all things of things we do not need to know, such as the names and ages and trades of other passengers (the shipboard septet – oh, please) on the vessel that could have conveyed the “great composer” to Boston. Remember that one? And we know where you find all these annoyingly irrelevant details. You even admit as much: on the Internet. So what?

There are cameo appearances by numerous well-known literary greats, Longfellow appears and there is speculation that Beethoven’s possible composition of an Indian operetta, a cross over and potential inspiration for ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. Herman Melville makes an appearance as a young boy interviewing the maestro;

Q.: (if I had employed my better judgement, it may very well be that I would not have broached this topic, but I include the question here for the sake of the composer’s response, which startled me by its force, as by its unexpected metaphor.) How did you react to the controversial article adverting to your music that appeared recently in one of the German musical periodicals?

A.: I have not read the article. I no longer receive the paper, which is a shabby proceeding. If the editor does not rectify the statement, I shall cause him and his consumptive chief to be harpooned in the northern waters among the whales!

Could Beethoven have sown the seeds for the creation of ‘Moby Dick’ AND ‘The Song of Hiawatha’? Wonderful, controversial (impossible) speculation.

There are a few chapters where I felt a peripheral character was created simply so a line from Beethoven’s letters could be used, for example a discussion takes place over the family breakfast table where Daniel Gregory reveals he is unable to sing the solo in the oratorio and has passed the part to Lowell Junior. Beethoven says; “I was indeed, not a little surprised when I found the boy in a distant room practicing all alone, and neither disturbing not being disturbed by others.” However, there are counterpoints to this, The Composer’s address to the Chorus before the first concert, the interview by Herman Melville are but two examples of using pre-existing material to create a new tale.

Add to all the playfulness the fact that Griffiths has created part of Beethoven’s imagined oratorio and you know you are reading a very skilled writer, one who seems to be having a great time playing with his readers, leading us one way, then the next, throwing in other characters of the era, you never know what the next chapter will throw up.

The book closes with a future tense chapter, the Composer, the members of the Boston Handel & Haydn Society and Thankful are on the dock.

Opening with past tense, closing with future tense, although a linear narrative, gives this an off-kilter unreal, speculative world feel. A very enjoyable and playful read.

Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…

David Hebblethwaite has a very interesting approach to this novel, the element of communication, you can read his take here .

The book itself is a stunning production by Henningham Family Press (“a microbrewery for books”), litho printed in lilac-grey. French-fold red Takeo Tant cover, debossed with a gloss black and gold design (thanks Paul Fulcher). The paper using recycled coffee cup technology!! I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. More information on this subscription offer can be found here.

Goldsmiths Prize

2019 winner

In the 2013 the Booker Prize changed their rules, previously only books by English-language authors from the Commonwealth, including the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe were eligible for the Prize. The rules were changed to accept any novels originally published in English by a UK publisher. They also restricted the number of books that a publisher could submit. Previously, any publisher could submit two novels for consideration. Under the new rules, only one could be submitted, unless a publisher who has had one or two longlisted books in the past half-decade, they will be allowed two submissions; a publisher with three or four longlistings three; and a publisher with five or more longlistings will be permitted four submissions.

As Anne Meadows, assistant editor at Granta said at the time, “It means the prize will be dominated by big publishing houses who maybe aren’t taking as many risks. It could make it incredibly elitist.” (BBC)

There was also controversy about the new inclusion of US authors, previously ineligible. As Jackie Kaiser, an agent at Westwood Creative Artists in Toronto who represents Yann Martel, winner in 2002 with Life of Pi (Canongate) said, “I suppose that this move will give the selected books greater publicity and better sales traction in the US, and these aren’t bad things, but while America is clearly the biggest and arguably the most important book market in the world, it isn’t the only one, and with publisher lists in the other English-language territories already allocating valuable fiction slots to US writers, it is hard not to fear that this move may lead to a further Americanisation of literary culture.” (Bookseller)

In the same year, 2013, The Goldsmiths Prize was established by the University of London, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. The annual prize of £10,000 is awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.

Launched in the tercentenary year of the births of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot, the Goldsmiths Prize champions fiction that shares something of the exuberant inventiveness and restlessness with conventions manifest in Tristram Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist. The modern equivalents of Sterne and Diderot are often labelled ‘experimental,’ with the implication that their fiction is an eccentric deviation from the novel’s natural concerns, structures and idioms. A long view of the novel’s history, however, suggests that it is the most flexible and varied of genres, and the Goldsmiths Prize seeks to encourage and reward writers who make best use of its many resources and possibilities.” (Goldsmiths)

I originally established this blog, many many years ago, to track the Booker Prize, previous winners and shortlisted novels and to read, review longlisted works as they were announced each year. When the rules changed in 2013, I stopped reading the Booker Prize nominees, and although I returned to read the longlists in 2018 and 2019, I never posted my thoughts as I felt too many titles were bland, or downright awful (ie. ‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer, unreadable after one paragraph!!). There are of course exceptions, ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns has been rightfully lauded, earlier this week also picking up the Dublin Literary Award, an award where the longlisted novels are nominated by world libraries.

A week before the announcement of the 2020 Dublin Literary Award , the judges of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize, Frances Wilson (Chair), Will Eaves, Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Chris Power, announced their shortlist.

‘Mr. Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)

‘A Lover’s Discourse’ by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus)

‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)

‘Meanwhile in Dopamine City’ by DBC Pierre (Faber)

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield (Fleet)

As a reader who enjoys fiction “that is deemed genuinely novel“ and books that are “an eccentric deviation from the novel’s natural concerns, structures and idioms”, and having enjoyed past winners such as ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride (2013), ‘H(A)PPY’ by Nicola Barker (2017), and ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann (2019),  I have decided that a reading of the 2020 shortlist is right up my alley . Expect some thoughts from me on the 2020 shortlisted titles in the coming weeks.

The winner will be announced on 11 November 2020, too early for me to have read all six titles, but I do intend to read all six.