Set in eighteenth century Britain, ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ by Imogen Hermes Gowar tells the story of Jonah Hancock, a middle-aged widower and respectable Deptford merchant who discovers that the captain of one of his ships has sold his vessel in exchange for a stuffed “mermaid”. Although initially horrified by this transaction, Mr Hancock is later persuaded to profit from the rare curiosity he has acquired and loans the mermaid to Mrs Chappell for display at her infamous high society parties and Soho brothel. Celebrated courtesan Angelica Neal is tasked with entertaining Mr Hancock which she sees as an irritating distraction at first. However, as the display becomes the talk of London, Angelica decides she wants a mermaid of her own and Mr Hancock does whatever it takes to find another one.
It is easy to see why ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ reportedly secured Imogen Hermes Gowar a six-figure advance for her debut novel, said to have been inspired by exhibits at the British Museum where she worked as a gallery assistant. Comparisons have been made to The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry due to the feminist and magical realist aspects, and Golden Hill by Francis Spufford in its historical accuracy and attention to period detail, while I also found it reminiscent of The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber for its warts-and-all (or rather genital warts-and-all) view of London’s brothels. As to be expected from a novel described by the publisher as “sumptuous”, the pace is languid and the prose is heavily descriptive. However, Gowar’s pastiche of the era is much easier to digest than Spufford’s more decorative prose whilst remaining an immersive experience for the reader.
Those who are more interested in the fantasy elements suggested in the blurb might be disappointed that the titular mermaid’s role remains in the background of events for the most part, but I think the overall balance between myths and realism was pitched just right (for my taste, at least). Instead, Gowar manages to weave in multiple subplots in an unusual structure which deftly handles several weighty themes concerning social and moral issues with a light touch thanks to some sharp dialogue. The dominant presence of female characters who take unexpected yet still credible paths in their development is also very engaging.
Having only been featured in brief glimpses, the magical realism towards the end seemed a little jarring, but this is a minor quibble. Overall, ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ is a thoroughly entertaining historical novel and a widely lauded debut that is very much worth seeking out. I look forward to seeing what Imogen Hermes Gowar writes next. Many thanks to Penguin Random House Vintage Books for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.