Book review: Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
The red-haired Ariel in Hans Christian Anderson’s beloved tale The Little Mermaid may have been a noble and self-sacrificing creature, but most legends across the world portray mermaids as deceptive and dangerous.
These sea nymphs are said to bring bad luck and — with their unimaginable beauty and enchanting songs — lure hapless sailors to their deaths.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus claimed to have seen three near the Dominican Republic (they were manatees), as did Henry Hudson (who discovered the Hudson river) during an expedition in 1608.
Mermaids are mythical, of course, created perhaps by idleness on long sea expeditions or hallucinations caused by deprivation and years of being trapped in a watery prison. Or maybe they were born out of the most universal of all human impulses: to pass the buck when things go wrong.
The mermaid in Imogen Hermes Gowan’s debut historical/fantasy novel, in keeping with ancient mythology, is something of a horcrux: Bringing out the worst in whoever is unfortunate enough to cross its way. The novel, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, is set in 18th century England and recreates that period remarkably.
A respectable widowed merchant’s world is upended when he finds himself the owner of a dead mermaid (the first of two to appear in the book), and decides to make money by exhibiting her across town. The mermaid puts him in the path of Angelica Neal, an accomplished courtesan in a not-so-respectable part of Deptford, who has just lost her long-time patron and is in search of new amusements. If the first mermaid brings this unlikely couple together, the second one (who appears later and is alive) seeks to destroy their hard-earned bliss.
The narrative moves somewhat slowly in the first of the three sections that make the book as Gowen takes her time introducing and fleshing out with care the many characters that populate her novel. She animates a small town in England of 1785 with her glittering prose, recreating its shipyards, brothels, courts, coffee houses, streets; its manners, people, customs, as well as the cruelty and fickleness that was a part of life, especially for women, in the ages gone by.
What is just as remarkable is that Gowen does all of this using 18th century parlance which makes the experience of reading a work of historical fiction all the more authentic, without making it boring. A great amount of research must have gone into getting the historical aspects right, but it is well blended and there are no information dumps that act as speed breakers in the narrative. The story picks up pace by the time the second mermaid makes her appearance and from then on the novel is hard to put down.
Gowen’s writing is gorgeous and very visual. There is a particular scene in the book where the courtesan, Angelica, and her housekeeper, are moving a table across the room and as you read you can almost hear them do so.
The novel is a bit slow in the beginning and it may take time for the reader to warm up to the characters and care about their fates. But once you are invested, it is hypnotising.
Now how many 18th century novels can boast of such charms?
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
By Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher: Penguin Random House