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Trinidadian-born, British writer Monique Roffey has won the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year award for her magical realism novel The Mermaid of Black Conch: a Love Story, published in the UK by the Leeds-based independent Peepal Press.
Her win is a triumph not only for Roffey, who set up her own crowdfunding campaign to help PR for the book, but also for her publisher which specialises in international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK, as well as Black British fiction, poetry and non-fiction.
Roffey’s novel is a love story based on a Taino [indigenous Caribbean] legend of a beautiful woman transformed into a mermaid. The novel has elements of magical realism and a challenging style that pushes what is possible in prose. It is set in the Seventies in St Constance, a tiny Caribbean village on the island of Black Conch at the start of the rainy season. The publisher’s synopsis says: ‘A fisherman sings to himself in his pirogue [small wooden fishing vessel], waiting for a catch – but attracts a sea-dweller he doesn’t expect. Aycayia, a beautiful young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, has been swimming the Caribbean Sea for centuries. And she is entranced by this man David and his song.
‘But her fascination is her undoing. She hears his boat’s engine again and follows it, and finds herself at the mercy of American tourists, landed on the island for the annual fishing competition. After a fearsome battle, she is pulled out of the sea and strung up on the dock as a trophy. It is David who rescues her, and gently wins her trust – as slowly, painfully, she starts to transform into a woman again. But transformations are not always permanent, and jealousy, like love, can have the force of a hurricane, and last much longer.’
Roffey is a and also a senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Commenting on her win she said: “More than anything it’s a big boost for the book. For me it’s watching something very niche and complicated and in the margins make a big leap out there into a mainstream readership, which is like a miracle.”
She continued: “None of the big publishers wanted to publish it, none of the mainstream ones, because it’s not written in standard English and it experiments with form and it’s magical so maybe there were too many things that were too crazy about the book for the mainstream publishers. But Peepal Tree are the right people. Jeremy Poynting [who founded the publisher in 1986] is one of our greatest living Caribbean editors so he really understood the book and I was very happy to go with Peepal Tree.”
The publisher is rushing through a 20,000 reprint and the author will now surely enjoy international interest in her work. Her previous novels are published by Simon & Schuster in the UK and she is agented by Isobel Dixon at Blake Friedmann in the London.