Name: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
Author: Imogen Hermes Gower
Number of Pages: 496 (Hardback)
Published: January 25th 2018 by Harvill Secker
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?
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. – from Goodreads
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, merchant, widower, and generally decent man, and Angelica Neal, a once-famed courtesan forced back into society as her protector has passed away.
Mr Hancock unwittingly comes into possession of a mermaid, and, with little idea what else to do with it, he displays it.
Angelica’s former madam/bawd seeks to capitalise on the unexpected popularity of the mermaid and charm Mr Hancock by putting the highly-skilled and tempting Angelica in his path, and so our two main characters are drawn together.
With a title like that, there’s going to be a mermaid, yes? Well, yes, sort of…
There are two instances of mermaids and neither is what anyone would have imagined or hoped for. The first is a dried husk of a creature, a curiosity intended to cause faux terror, a shudder down the spine of society ladies, a guffaw from young gentleman. It undeniably has appeal, for such an exhibition leads to Mr Hancock becoming an incredibly wealthy man.
The second mermaid is a formidable, mysterious creature of endless grief and sorrow, and anyone who witnesses it falls into a state of melancholy. It is an intangible thing, almost magical, and the introduction of such a wonder, in such an unusual setting gives this book an air of magic towards the end.
For the most part though this book is firmly planted within the realms of historical fiction, so if you‘re put off because fantasy or magical realism isn’t your usual reading fare I would still pick up this book, for those elements are minimal.
The London inhabited by Angelica and Mr Hancock springs vividly to life within richly crafted sentences.
The plot meanders into ‘nunneries’ (brothels), family homes, down dark secluded allies where no good happens, via country estates (where a similar sort of no good sometimes happens), into coffee houses and shops selling the most mouth-watering sweet treats, and to the filth-laden streets of the city amidst an angry mob.
I loved the gentle pace of this sprawling tale, and the way everything came to life – the sights, the smells, the colours, the lavishness of Angelica’s rented rooms and new possessions as she feels her star begin to rise once more.
As to the characters, I never imagined I’d say this but I ended up really liking Angelica. At first I didn’t. Her self-assurance borders on arrogance; she’s definitely not a lady lacking in self-belief, going to the theatre ‘knowing’ that she’s the most attractive woman in the room.
Admittedly, she needs to be strong, for there are those who would claim her back into their service, and make her the courtesan she had been previously, and they’re very persistent. Even a so-called friend would see her relinquish control of her own life in order to secure them both some material comforts. She resists their imploring and that must take courage and determination.
As the story goes on things take a dramatic turn, and Angelica must learn to thrive again. I really liked the woman she became by the time the mermaid’s presence started to affect her family.
There are many colourful characters within the novel, and various sub-plots, some of which I would have liked to have drawn to a more definite conclusion. A happy ending, a comeuppance or two, would have really rounded things off, especially as earlier on there was enough to become invested in these characters.
For Mr Hancock and Angelica though, theirs is a long journey to finding each other and there are challenges along the way which both of them will have to face. In their case, I cannot say what their ending will be, but the power of mermaids is said to be destructive, and it is their fascination with mermaids that bought them together in the first place.
An enthralling, atmospheric debut into the world of historical fiction with just a hint of something a little magical, I really enjoyed The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and I will definitely pick up the next book by Imogen Hermes Gower.