Pub. DateL 25/01/2018
Publisher: Vintage; Harvill Secker
A spellbinding story of curiosity, love and obsession from an astonishing new talent.
One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.
As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?
In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.It wasn't until the very end of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock that I think I finally understood the message of the novel. Most books end up discussing that greatest topic of all, the human condition, the why and wherefore of human existence. Thankfully there is no answer or solution to that topic, hence why we keep getting new and brilliant novels. In the end, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a novel about, as the blurb says, 'curiosity and obsession'. What happens when you spend your whole life chasing something, a dream, a cargo, a house, a position in society, and then you don't get it? And what if you do? Are there possibilities you're not seeing, consequences you're not imagining, adventures you're not undertaking, just because you're obsessed with a certain plan or idea? It wasn't until the end of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock that I saw that all the novel's different story lines come together to pose this question. And the way in which Gowar does so makes the journey across her novel's pages all the more worth it. Diving into her characters, into 18th century London was an experience!
What I love about the title of this novel is that it doesn't give much away, but once you've read the novel you realise it's a perfect representation of the novel. On the one hand there is the fantastical and the magical, both of the mermaid and of the surface lives of some of the characters. It all seems charmed and beautiful, until you look below the surface. And then, on the other hand, there is the hard, historical fact of the lives of the novel's characters. The fact is that, despite the constant development and "improvement", living in the 18th century in London was no fun for most. Gowar addresses the conflicting roles of women in London's society, how delicate their position is, how easily they are taken advantage of, how far they can fall. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock moves between the narration of different characters, each of whom show their own stories through the third person. Whether it's the courtesans, the businessmen or the servants, each get a chance to tell their story and share their view. For some the pace of the novel may be too slow, or the plot may be too broad, but if you take your time with this novel, if you let it work its magic, it will be an incredibly worthwhile reading experience.
One of the major pluses of this novel is Imogen Hermes Gowar's writing. From the moment you start The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock you feel utterly immersed in 18th century London. The amount of detail that Gowar works into her writing without making it obvious is astounding. There is truly a sense that you can smell the cakes and the streets, feel the heat of fires and cold of winds, hear the rustle of gowns and carriages rolling past. Historical Fiction has the difficult task of mixing history with fiction, but Gowar manages to give you both without betraying either. Her research shows itself in how effortless she imparts knowledge to you. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is enormous, nearly 500 pages long, and in part this is because Gowar takes her time. The plot meanders at times, there are subplots that aren't necessarily relevant to the main story of the mermaid or Mrs. Hancock, but each does bring something to the reading experience. I would have liked some more closure on one or two of them, to see the story either clearly brought to an end or finished enough to allow the reader to imagine an end for themselves.
I give this novel..
I adored The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. It is a sumptuous novel that takes you on a stroll through 18th century London while showing you a set of characters trying to do their best. Gowar's writing is gorgeous and her characters are rough and real. I can't wait to read her next book! I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and those willing to work for their Magical Realism.