Book Review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid & Mrs HancockAbout the Book

This voyage is special. It will change everything…

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?

Format: eBook (482 pp.), hardcover (496 pp.)  Publisher: Vintage Books
Published: 25th January 2018                              Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is notable for its cast of memorable female characters.  There’s Angelica, the beautiful, capricious, independent-minded courtesan who’s unfortunately insufficiently financially independent not to be in need of a new protector.  There’s the procuress to high society and Angelica’s erstwhile employer, Mrs Chappell, a somewhat grotesque figure but one who possesses an acute eye for business.  ‘Mrs Chappell is there to greet him, a vast toad in white linen, her stubby arms outstretched and her legs churning up her skirts as she paddles across the gleaming floor.’  There’s clever, organised Sukie, Mr Hancock’s niece, who’s been made to feel ‘a spare daughter’ in her mother’s large household and wonders about her future.  ‘Sukie’s secret ambition is to marry a gentleman in possession of s good trade but poor health, who will die very shortly after the children are born and leave her be.’  And there’s young Polly, whose dark skin makes her merely a valuable novelty for the men who patronise Mrs Chappell’s establishment.

However, my favourite character and the most sympathetic figure in the book to my mind is Jonah Hancock.  Widowed in tragic circumstances, he’s all too aware of his responsibilities to support his sister’s mighty brood.  Jonah is seized with the desire to better himself and it is in pursuit of this that he is persuaded to take the uncharacteristic step of putting the strange object he has unexpectedly acquired on public display.  What follows will bring him wealth and fame but also contact with elements of society that are totally outside of his previous experience.

Above all, Jonah is lonely. ‘Mr Hancock returns to his own doorstep, where no wife stands with her arms outstretched to him, and no children buzz with their observations of the day.’  He feels particularly keenly the sadness of having no child to make everything he’s achieved seem worthwhile.  ‘If he leaves nothing, who can say he lived at all?’ When he sets eyes on Angelica he is immediately captivated, although they seemingly have little in common.  Perhaps his life may take a different path, a path which he had long ago given up hope of?

The book has a fantastic period atmosphere reminiscent of that created by Francis Spufford in Golden Hill.  The sights, sounds and tastes of 18th century London are conjured up so the reader feels immersed in the period. ‘Syllabubs on cold slates; liqueur-flavoured jellies, and strawberries and melons and millefruits; and a great heaped centrepiece of butter-yellow pineapples, whose flesh both fresh and roasted perfumes the room.’  And there’s a touch of another ‘Hill’ – Fanny Hill by John Cleland – in some of the bawdy scenes at Mrs Chappell’s ‘entertainments’.

There’s some brilliantly witty writing and dry humour.  ‘It happens that a gentleman named Mr Brierley is one day caught in flagrante with this horse-boy, or some say his horse, but either way such prurient interest in the dealings of strangers has no place in this story.  It only signifies at all because after this Mr Brierley hanged himself, the extent of his debts was revealed, and his widow put his house and all its contents up for sale for a very reasonable price.’

Amid the lively atmosphere of high society taking its pleasures, there are darker undertones.  There is a reminder that the gilded cage in which Mrs Chappell’s ‘ladies’ reside is a form of imprisonment and that their lives could be transformed for the worse in a moment.   In fact, being trapped by one’s gender, class, race, financial situation or even marital status emerges as a theme of the book.  There are other messages as well: that you should be careful what you wish for, that you should count your blessings and that what you think you crave above all things may not bring you the happiness you believe – in fact, just the opposite.  “To be content as best we can must be enough for us.”  Perhaps contentment is all anyone needs.

I absolutely loved this book with its cast of colourful characters, its exquisite period detail and engaging story line.  It’s a long time away, but this will go straight on my list of books I’ll tip to make The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction longlist in 2019. And, I’ll bet that’s not the only literary prize list it ends up on either.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Vintage, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Spirited, atmospheric, richly-textured

Try something similar…Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (click here to read my review)

Imogen Hermes GowarAbout the Author

Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History before going on to work in museums. She began to write fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition and shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I didn’t like the story that much, I found it too boring and too long and was disappointed the mermaid doesn’t have more of a central role. But I found the writing excellent, especially the recreation of the time period of the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand what you mean as about 20% of the way in I wasn’t sure I was going to like it as much as I eventually did. I think it definitely picked up pace as it went on. As for the mermaid, I didn’t mind it turned out to be more symbolic – it could have been a unicorn or some other mythical creature, I guess. But I felt the sense of melancholy it seemed to exude gave a slightly magical feel to the story.

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