Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, a story of exclusion and exile, has firmly secured its place in literary legacy, after winning the 2020 Costa Book of the Year Award. The book was lauded as “utterly original” by the prize’s judges in a virtual announcement ceremony on Tuesday January 26, 2021.
It’s a win not just for Roffey’s tale of magic and myth, but also for the wider sphere of Caribbean storytelling, and the novel’s independent publishers Peepal Tree Press, whose Caribbean literature titles have been earning steady international acclaim, including Roger Robinson’s Portable Paradise, which took home the T.S. Eliot poetry prize early last year.
Previously shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award six years ago, Roffey emerged winner of the category in 2020, vying for the overall Book of the Year award against four other category winners, including another TT author, Ingrid Persaud, with her widely-embraced Love After Love (Faber), which won Costa’s 2020 First Novel prize.
The winner’s ceremony saw the final prize judges heaping plaudits on Mermaid, with chair Suzannah Lipscombe bestowing on it the epithets of “utterly original” and “completely compelling”, saying that it felt “like a classic in the making from a writer at the height of her powers”.
The story, part indigenous legend and part redemptive rewrite, is a captivating weaving of myth and magical realism into the story of Aycayia, a centuries old mermaid, who, drawn to the singing of a fisherman, is caught by American tourists. She is rescued and hidden away, where she slowly, painfully turns into a woman, and where she is given back what her cursed fate had denied – “community, family, friends, and romantic love”.
Immediately after the announcement of the overall prize, the two Trinidad authors, Roffey and Persaud, who were tuned in virtually along with other finalists, could be heard exclaiming that they wanted to give each other massive hugs. With pandemic lockdowns and social distancing mandates changing the approaches to literary celebrations, Caribbean authors’ support for each other from all corners of the diaspora has shone through – both Roffey and Persaud participated in feature events at Bocas Lit Fest’s fully virtual festival in September 2020.
As Roffey and Peepal Tree proudly hashtagged #Caribbean and #CaribbeanAuthors in their celebratory tweets, Bocas Lit Fest founder and director Marina Salandy-Brown remarked that it was “a tremendous win for everything Caribbean when our extraordinary talent, stories and hard-fought victories in publishing and literature are elevated with such prestigious accolades like this”. She added that “all of us in the Bocas community are overjoyed for Monique and Peepal Tree Press, whose energy and work in expanding the written word further beyond its evocative reach, could not be more deserving of this Award.”
The Costa Book Awards is one of the UK’s most coveted and popular book prizes and celebrates the “most enjoyable books of the year” by writers resident in the UK and Ireland. The administrators’ media message advised that “the last 10 Costa Book of the Year winners alone have gone on to sell a combined total of just over 1.8 million copies”. Both Roffey and Persaud live between the UK and the Caribbean.
The 2020 Costa Book Awards Prize Announcement Ceremony can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrD53EMk1A4