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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock Hardcover – 25 Jan 2018
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"A cracking historical novel – with a twinge of the surreal – about passion and obsession, dreams and reality... The story is by turns intriguing, touching, funny, sad and heartwarming. It will make you laugh and it may make you cry. Mostly, though, the cast of endlessly engaging characters will keep you turning the pages until you get to the wholly satisfying ending... The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is superb." (The Times)
"From the first page of this dazzling debut novel, you are pitched into a sumptuously detailed adventure set in the bustle and swagger of 18th century London… The result is a wonderfully written and richly descriptive novel, its brilliantly drawn characters driven by heady and dangerous desires.*****" (Sunday Express)
"Roll up, roll up, a true wonder is on display: a mermaid magicked out of words. The author of this debut set in Georgian London gulled me, by the zest of her writing and sustained authorial slight of hand, into forgetting for a second that they do not exist... Imogen Hermes Gowar delights in the feminine fakery of mermaids, but as a writer she is the real deal." (Hermione Eyre, author of Viper Wine Guardian)
"Hotly anticipated... a bold, sumptuous doorstopper... Gowar has created a dazzlingly original novel, full of heady pleasures and shot through with the kind of irreverent humour you might expect to find in Georgian London. She’s succeeded in creating a fully-realised world that you want to get lost in. But what’s most refreshing is that she gives all the best lines to women." (Evening Standard)
"A marvellous, high-energy, inventive romp through Georgian society. Rich in delicious period detail and written with a wickedly observant eye, the path of this unlikely romance leads down some unexpected byways to give a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable reading treat." (Fanny Blake Daily Mail)
"Historical fiction at its finest… Early as it is in the year to be predicting Booker nominations, if debuts feature as prominently as they did on last year’s longlist, this will surely merit consideration." (Irish Times)
"The bustling, bawdy world of 18th-century London [is] expertly evoked in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. This is undoubtedly the start of a major career for this young writer." (Vogue)
"Beautifully written...As seductive as any siren's song, this remarkable, glittering Georgian tale has a heart of purest gold." (Essie Fox)
"Like the recent historical-fiction hits Franics Spufford’s Golden Hill, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, this is a novel pungent in historical detail" (Sunday Times)
"Wonderful… completely transporting" (Madeline Miller)
About the Author
Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History before going on to work in museums. She began to write fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition and shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award.
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Mercer Jonah Hancock’s life is changed forever the night he is disturbed by urgent knocking at the front door and finds one of his ships’ captains there informing him he sold his ship for a “mermaid”. Jonah is incensed at the money this impetuous frivolity has cost him. But word soon spreads, and with everyone now vying to see his marvel he decides to show the creature at a coffee house. A move that makes his fortunes turn. His life is changed again when high society bawd Mrs.Chappell offers a large sum of money to display the mermaid at her establishment. She throws a lavish party to celebrate and it is there that Jonah meets Angelica Neal, a beautiful courtesan and former protogée of Mrs. Chappell, with whom he is instantly smitten. When Anglica requests a mermaid of her own Jonah doesn’t hesitate to send out a crew to find and procure what she desires, neither of them knowing that this will have far reaching repercussions for them both and change their lives again in unimaginable ways.
From the start I loved the way this book was written. It is enchanting, beautiful and lyrical, with such attention to detail it no surprise to learn the many years the author had studied the time period in which is was set, worked in a Museum, and that this book started off as her dissertation for her MA in Creative Writing. She brought Georgian London to life with a vivid realism thanks to attention to the most minute and unusual details. Being a story that featured brothels and courtesans there is also some sensuous and erotic storytelling that was at times a little shocking. Many social issues of the time period were highlighted in this book: the hypocrisy, abuses of power, the vulnerability and ownership of women, and how unsteady and unstable someone’s position in that society could be. It was interesting to learn what was viewed as acceptable or proper at the time and the very different expectations and ambitions that existed.
The book was separated into three volumes and at the end of the first volume I was at a loss as to where the story was going and had found the story had got off to a slow start. At that point I thought the characters were interesting and well written, but I didn’t like either of the main characters and preferred a number of the secondary ones, although unusually this didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book. Volume two was my favourite as the pace of the story picked up and captivated me. It was also where we got to know and understand Jonah and Angelica and began to feel an attachment to them, become invested in their fates and how their story was unfolding. The third volume did a good job of concluding their story but I did think some things were left unfinished and could have been explored further.
One of the things I was most looking forward to about this novel was the mermaid, who was an enigmatic, elusive, haunting and mystifying creature. There were chapters dedicated to her and her magic and mystery was woven throughout them. I read this book with a belief that mermaids exist. The author writes it so that you don’t question that mermaids can be found amongst the seals in our seas and could be captured by a fisherman.
I started read this book anticipating one of wonder, elegance and mystery. While there were all these things throughout the thoroughly researched and complex story, it’s slow start meant that it didn’t take my breath away and amaze me the way I was hoping. Nevertheless, this book was still a witty, detailed, beautifully written piece of historical fiction that I would recommend.
Story wise, this is a tale with no twists or turns, but it’s compelling non the less thanks to the well drawn and likeable characters. Despite the titular supernatural elements, this is a believable story about the way people behave, and the true meanings of happiness and of love.
I’ll say it again, I loved this book.
The world of London in the 1780s is very powerful evoked. I could mentally walk the streets, visualise every character, and see every scene play out like a film. Both Mr Hancock and Angelica Neal are interesting, believable and ultimately likeable characters. There are a host of intriguing supporting characters too - Mrs Chappell the madam, Sukie the teenaged housekeeper, and Angelica's friend Mrs Frost. The story tells a great deal about life in those times, in particular the lot of women and their limited options.
The fantastical element - the bit about the mermaid - is very downplayed. I'd expected more of a fantasy story, but this is largely a historical/literary novel with a great story about real world happenings. The little dark touch of magic that accompanies the later part of the book is not significant. So if you are not keen on fantasy, don't let that put you off reading this.
Overall it is a really enjoyable read with characters I liked, a plot I couldn't second-guess, and written in a style I admired. Hermes Gower has a great turn of phrase and has a way of putting things that both makes me smile and makes me wish I had the skill to write things that well. It's a long book, but every page is worth it. Highly recommended, and I'll certainly try her next one.