A real cornucopia of Victoriana and peopled with some weird and wonderful characters, Essie Fox's second novel 'Elijah's Mermaid' makes for an atmospheric read. Orphaned twins, Elijah and Lily are rescued from Coram's Foundling Hospital, by their writer grandfather, Augustus Lamb. The twins are brought up in Kingsland House, their grandfather's delightful country home, cocooned from the outside world, listening to Augustus's stories about fairies, hunting for "treasure and magic things" and dreaming about mermaids with golden hair. Meanwhile, in London, a beautiful web-toed baby is found floating in the Thames one dank, foggy night and taken to the House of Mermaids, a brothel, where she is raised in luxury by the Madame of the house, Mrs Hibbert. The child is given the name Pearl and is cared for lovingly by Mrs Hibbert, or at least she is until she reaches her fourteenth birthday, when she is made aware that she and her virginity are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Shortly before the auction, the paths of Pearl and the Lamb twins cross by chance, when Elijah and Lily come to London, where Elijah is struck by Pearl's luminous beauty, falling in love with her after just a glance. But Pearl is not destined to be Elijah's mermaid, for she is soon sold off to an eccentric artist, who is delighted to find his very own mermaid and muse. A few years later, Elijah meets up with Pearl again when he has become a talented photographer and has been offered a job in London. But soon after arriving in London, Elijah disappears and when no news about his whereabouts reaches his sister and grandfather, Lily realizes that she will have to travel to London herself, in order to discover what fate has befallen her beloved brother. (No spoilers - there is plenty more for prospective readers to uncover).
Inspired by Charles Kingsley's 'The Water Babies' and with the motif of water ever present, this attractively presented novel is written in a mixed media method, with first-person narratives from the perspectives of Pearl and Lily, diary entries from Elijah and a selection of newspaper articles and letters. Essie Fox has researched her subject well and includes an appendix at the end of the book informing the reader of the real life characters and places that inspired her novel and she also includes a list of Victorian slang words (which, on reflection, might have been more useful if placed at the beginning of the novel).
I haven't read Essie Fox's previous novel: The Somnambulist
- in fact this book was given to me as a present and, having heard the author being compared with Wilkie Collins and Sarah Waters, I thought that Essie Fox would have a lot to live up to. Well, 'Elijah's Mermaid' may be an atmospheric story, but I do have to say that I found parts of it a little contrived and I must say that I found the writing rather overblown at times; however that said, Essie Fox's enthusiasm for her subject is evident and her Victorian world is descriptively vivid, so many readers may find it easy to become pulled into this story of secrets, obsessive love, duplicity and betrayal. If you are in the mood to be seduced by some Victorian-style sensationalism and want to spend a little time in the Victorian underworld from the safety of your armchair, then 'Elijah's Mermaid' may be just what you are looking for.