The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Buzz: Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2018. Picked as a ‘MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018’ by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer, The Times, BBC Arts, Red Magazine, Stylist, and Independent.
I once passed through the most decadent and beguiling vintage shop in a cute little town somewhere. The mannequins were perfectly and precisely accessorised, and baskets spilled over with such beautifully textured fabrics it didn’t matter what they were for. And the smell. Just breathing there for two minutes left you enriched.
If I bought something, I never would have worn it. It was a place to stand in, dip your toe, soak up the luxury, and dream a little of an alternative life.
Reading The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a bit like visiting that shop. It, too, is classy and fascinating, stuffed with exquisite textures and perfectly placed details. The setting is so vivid you could almost sneeze with all the hair powder in the air. Each historical detail is so real it brings Georgian London to life completely.
When we first meet a main character, “She sits at her dressing table as cool and fragrant as a rosewater custard, picking at a bowl of hothouse fruit while her friend...tweaks the last scorched curl-paper from her hair. She has been laced back into her stays and half draped in a powdering robe…”
The book follows widowed merchant Jonah Hancock, who is horrified when his ship’s Captain shows up at his house, having sold his ship and cargo to buy what appears to be the grotesque and clawed body of an infant mermaid. As all of London descends to see it, the sensible Hancock crosses paths with a famous courtesan, Angelica Neal, and becomes smitten.
The concept is brilliant: imaginative and quirky yet so easy to step into believing it all. My history is shaky, but I think at around this time ships’ Captains were coming back from unknown lands with all sorts of unimaginable creatures stashed in the hull, to be stuffed and displayed in the British Museum. As one character says to a cynical scientist: “It strikes me as contrary that you will accept the existence of a kongouro, which you never saw or heard of before on such slim testimony, and yet how many tales have you heard of mermaids, and how many sailors report seeing them?”
And it is because you are so grounded in the historical details that the more magical elements can slip right in. Because the nature of the book does shift slightly in the second half, as the focus moves from textures of the world to textures of the mind.
In the first half we follow Angelica and Mr Hancock separately, and when their story threads come together it is immensely well done and satisfying. There was a point in the middle of the book where I was almost standing from my seat to cheer Angelica on. All it took was for her to say: “Stop now and listen to me.”
Then it all takes a rather subdued turn. If the first section comes to a happy ending of sorts, the second sees that happy ending dangled over the abyss while the author threatens to cut the rope. As a natural consequence of where the story leads, the characters all just feel a bit down and the author seems to try and up the excitement by making people run down stairs precariously, as though she’s threatening to kill them off every time the doorbell goes. As a reader, I felt I was being toyed with a little.
But if that element rankled slightly, it was more than compensated for by some wonderful and lightly-wielded reflections on topics such as class, morality and feminism. Mr Hancock considers how self-serving his puritanical outrage is, despite being raised to treasure it: “For shame, he thinks, we live on a different scale of morality. And which is the correct one? He regrets his solid provincial decency; he is sorry that the memory of the priapic sailors brings such a wave of horror to his soul; for those people are so much happier than he is.”
And a female character has a moment of pause, on marrying, that many modern women will relate to: “She will never be simply her own self in the world again; a personality all her own … She is ‘wife of’ and ‘aunt of’; later she will be ‘mother of’ … These claims upon her will only multiply -- she will be mother-in-law, grandmother, widow, dependant -- and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left.”
In the end, these rich observations help build some wonderfully complex characters. And it is they, not the trivial threats, that pull you gasping to the end. And the conclusion is every bit as satisfying as I would have hoped.
Published: 25th January 2018, Harvill Secker