Most people imagine the enchanting, scantily-clad beauties of fairytale when they think of mermaids, but Imogen Hermes Gowar offers an entirely different creature in her debut, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Readers will find no glittering scales or flowing hair here. Tipped as one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2018, the story promises to be one curiosity and obsession.
It is a cold September evening in 1785 when Mr Hancock finally gets the long-awaited knock on the door of his London home; he has been waiting for news of his ship, which he fears has sunk or disappeared. Yet the news he receives is far from expected: the ship’s captain has sold the vessel, and bought in its place a mermaid. When he pulls a gnarled, dead creature from his sack, Mr Hancock cannot believe he’s lost his entire fortune to this hideous creature, but his captain assures him there is a fortune to be made from the mermaid. When he showcases it as a curiosity in one of London’s cafes, he soon learns the mermaid is going to change the course of his life.
Across town, a beautiful and opulent young courtesan’s fate also hangs in the balance. Angelica Neal is trying to make a living on her own rather than be forced back into the brothel in which she was raised by the formidable Mrs Chappell. As news of the mermaid is spreading through the docks, parlours and brothels of London, Angelica and Mr Hancock’s paths will cross and their fates become intertwined as an unlikely romance blossoms between the pair, but will it be able to withstand the destructive power of the mermaid?
The greatest triumph of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is Gowar’s dazzling prose. Regardless of plot, pacing and all the other composite parts of a story, the novel is worth reading for its writing alone. Mrs Chappell, the mistress of the brothel, has “yellow teeth arranged like a string of knuckle bones.” Angelica is, in Mr Hancock’s eyes, “radiant: a buxom, bright-cheeked froth of a woman, with hair falling over her shoulders and drifting around her face gold as sunset clouds.” Every sentence is more enchanting than the last, and readers will want to take their time to savour the language.
Gowar does not seem to have such a mastery over the plot. It is at times slow and meandering, not helped by the multiple viewpoints. We follow Angelica, Mr Hancock, Mrs Chappell and her girls, and Mr Hancock’s young niece Sukie. Some storylines can at times feel tangential and hinder the novel’s pacing, whilst others — particularly that of Polly, one of Mrs Chappell’s black prostitutes — should have had more of a focus on them. Angelica and Mr Hancock themselves, our two main protagonists, were at times difficult to engage with, and even to like (especially at the beginning of the novel).
There is no doubt that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock will be one of the most beautifully written novels of the year. Whilst Gowar does not have the same grasp on her plotting as her prose, the richly evoked London of the 1700s is immersive enough to allow a meander here and there.