Late one night in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock is startled when one of his sea captains arrives unexpectedly at his door. The captain has made what seems to be a terrible bargain: he’s sold one of Jonah’s ships in exchange for a dessicated curiosity, the preserved corpse of what he claims is a mermaid. Jonah, used only to the world of trade, is bewildered by the idea of exhibiting the creature, but determined to get at least some of his money back. As the mermaid catches the imagination of London’s fashionable society, Jonah is drawn into the orbit of the celebrated prostitute Angelica Neal, who is irritated by being ordered to charm this uninspiring man. But as the pull of the mermaid grows ever greater, we begin to wonder whether what Jonah has acquired really is just a freak and a fake, or whether there is something more sinister going on.
Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, has already been compared to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, among others. It certainly depicts eighteenth-century society with as much vigour and fun as Spufford, and while the style is a light pastiche, it’s easier for the modern reader to get their head around than Spufford’s deliberately ornate prose. And like Burton’s debut, it tries to strike a compromise between historical realism and magical goings-on. Funnily enough, like The Miniaturist, I don’t think it quite succeeds – but the novel as a whole is so incredibly immersive that I could forgive it, even if I wanted to hear more about the mermaids who seem to be living their mysterious lives far beneath the waves. As the plot unfolds, Gowar keeps confounding our expectations; nothing about this novel is at all predictable, except perhaps for the spoiler given away by the title (which could, in my opinion, have been avoided by simply calling the book The Mermaid and Mr Hancock, even though the aptness of the current title becomes clear by the end of the novel).
The development of the central relationship between the flawed characters of Jonah and Angelica is assured and gripping, but I was even more taken by Gowar’s handling of the secondary female cast. The gaggle of courtesans that Angelica has trained among could easily be reduced into silly ciphers, but Gowar is careful to give them each lives and personalities of their own, especially Polly, a mixed-race woman who is becoming increasingly aware of how she is treated as an exotic curiosity by the society around her. Sukie, Jonah’s niece, who lives with him and keeps house, is equally engaging as she asserts her own intelligence and agency. In a different vein, but equally well-drawn, is Mrs Chappell, the ‘bawd’ who makes her living through the girls that she nurtures into prostitution, whose story has a horribly memorable ending that reminded me, oddly, of an equally shocking but very different scene in Golden Hill, perhaps because of the casualness of both books’ tone.
Those who come looking for mermaids might be slightly disappointed – but it looks like there are plenty of mermaids to come in fiction in 2018, from Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming, which promises ‘a queer mermaid love story’, to Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks, a retelling of the Little Mermaid. In the meantime, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a wonderful historical novel, and I can’t wait to see what Gowar writes next.
I received a free proof copy of this novel for review via NetGalley. It’s out in the UK on 25th January.