Man Met lecturer Monique Roffey wins Costa Book Award with The Mermaid of Black Conch

  • Winner of the Costa Book of the Year award
  • A Caribbean love story inspired fishing and feminism
  • 'More and more of us are finding our way into the wider public consciousness'

A senior lecturer at the at Manchester Metropolitan has won the £30,000 prize 2020 Costa Book Award.

Monique Roffey, part of the Writing School at Man Met, has written seven other novels as well as various essays, literacy journalism and a memoir.  

The Trinidadian author has previously won the OCM Bocas award for Caribbean literature in 2013 for her novel called Archipelago.

Her latest novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, won the 2020 Costa Book Award. It has been described as a love story set in a small Caribbean village, about a young fisherman who catches the attention of a mermaid called Aycayia by singing on his pirogue.

Roffey said she was inspired by “Dreams of mermaids, a Taino legend, the sea, big game fishing, feminism, and the desire to write a Caribbean love story” when writing the novel.

The author confessed her favourite when speaking about Caribbean myths and legends.

“The legend of La Diablesse is one of my favourites. She is a tall, beautiful African woman with one hidden cloven hoof under her voluminous skirts. In Trinidad’s folklore, she mostly wanders the rural roads, hoping to lure men into her clutches. Her legend is thought to be of Martiniquan extraction, harking back to when French planters arrived with their enslaved Africans in the late 18th Century,” she said.

One of the many interesting things about the novel is the use of patchwork effect to split the narrative into three different voices.

Roffey explains: “We rarely tell each other stories in a linear/chronological way. This way felt more real, more like how stories are actually told, from many POVs and voices.”

Despite lockdown, Roffey was still confident in the novels success as she felt the lockdown could be a blessing.

“This is perhaps one of the few good things coming out of the current pandemic. People are reading more.

“Yes. The stats or a new report is saying this is what’s happened, book sales are high currently,” she explained.

When questioned on what she has been reading recently, she said: “Corine Fowler’s Green Unpleasant Land,” published by Peepal Tree Press.

Professor Suzannah Lipscomb, one of the judges of the Costa Book Award described The Mermaid of Black Conch as “utterly original”.

She said: “Unlike anything we’ve ever read and feels like a classic in the making from a writer at the height of her powers. It’s a book that will take you to the furthest reaches of your imagination, we found it completely compelling.”

The other judges included Jill Dawson, Sadie Jones, Horatio Clare, Zaffar Kunial Patrice Lawrence, Stephen Mangan, Angellica Bell and vlogger Simon Savidge.

The head of the English department at Manchester Metropolitan, Professor Jess Edwards, said: “Monique’s colleagues and students in the English department and Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan are pleased and proud that her novel has received this further accolade from the Costa judges.”

Roffey found inspiration in her peers, as the English department has a history of success, including Andrew Michael Hurley who won best first novel in 2015, two-time winner of the poetry award, Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Symmons Roberts and Jean Spackland who also won the poetry award.

When speaking about Roger Robinson, who won the TS Eliot Prize in 2019, with the collection Portable Paradise, she said: “I’ve known Roger a long time. He’s a fellow Trinidadian too. Like me, he’s been publishing for 20 years. It was wonderful watching him win that big prize, and now I’ve won the Costa Book of the Year. I like that two mature, veteran writers from Trinidad have made it big. A good feeling.”

Both Robinson and Roffey have a publishing deal with Peepal Tree Press, and with the recent success of both writers, it seems that Caribbean literature is growing.

In response to this Roffey said: “Since Marlon James won in 2015 for his book about Bob Marley, yes. And there have been other big wins in poetry too, Vahni Capildeo, Kei Miller, Shivanee Ramlochan…..yes. More and more of us are finding our way into the wider public consciousness.”