A gritty reinvention of the Western literary trope of fisherman and mermaid

"Both the amaXhosa peoples and Karoo communities share similar water people myths. Ultimately, I settled mostly on a depiction that was told to me by a sangoma in a small rural village in Transkei."

28 April 2019 - 00:00 By Tiah Beautement

(Published in the Sunday Times: 28/04/2019)

The Woman of the Stone Sea ****
Meg Vandermerwe
Umuzi, R265

The Woman of the Stone Sea opens with a fisherman named Hendrik, a disagreeable sod whose wife vanished and whose only friend is drink. But an awakening begins after he pulls a wounded woman - who has a tail where her legs should be - out of the sea.

"I wanted to reinvent the archetypal Western literary trope of fisherman and mermaid," says Meg Vandermerwe.

"Both the amaXhosa peoples and Karoo communities share similar water people myths. Ultimately, I settled mostly on a depiction that was told to me by a sangoma in a small rural village in Transkei."

The result is a story that feels rooted in our world. It is magical realism, tinged with darkness and difficult characters, set in and among ordinary lives.

"I wanted to continue to examine this powerful intersection in South Africa. For the majority of South Africa's indigenous populations, the borders and boundaries between what the post-Enlightenment Western world might call the 'real world' and the supposedly fictitious world of spirit and the supernatural, are less clear; less dogmatically defined and less absolute."

The story is gritty, at times harsh, despite the beautiful prose. As one reads, it is impossible not to begin viewing the tale as a reflection of SA as a whole.

As Hendrik's life opens up enough to allow people back in, he discovers the pain that has existed outside his own experience. "You're not the only one trying to sail his boat on a stone sea," a friend says - something everyone needs to keep in mind. @ms_tiahmarie