One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.
As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee houses, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on…and a courtesan of great accomplishment. The meeting will steer both their lives on a dangerous new course.
What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?
Does anyone else ever get that thing where you deliberately don’t read a book because you know it’s going to be amazing and then you’ll never get an opportunity to experience it for the very first time again? Sort of like a ‘saving it for best’ book that you’re waiting for the right moment to be spellbound by? And then you put off reading it for a few months and then you’re not reading it just in case it doesn’t live up to all the expectation and hype you’ve created in your head? Yeah, book nerds are crazy….
Anyhoo, this is exactly what happened with The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which I have finally finished reading. I’d had it on the shelves since early February when I spent a delightful evening at the wonderful Booka Bookshop listening to Imogen herself introduce the novel and the glittering period of English history in which it is set. I was all intent on reading it straight away but weeks turned into months and then the fear that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be quite as good as I expected crept in. Mr Hancock and his mystical mermaid languished unread on the shelf for months – and would have stayed there for even longer if it hadn’t been for in Simon Savidge’s Big Book Weekender (thanks Simon!) giving me that push banish my fears, pick it up and dive straight in.
And the verdict? I was being completely and utterly daft because THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!
Seriously, why did I wait so long to read this?!?! It was an utter joy from start to finish, packed with a rich, evocative sense of time and place, a spell-binding cast of larger than life characters and a mesmerising use of language. An utter romp from the first page to the last that, despite a sedate pace and a plot that’s inclined to meander, led to me tearing through the 484 pages in a matter of days (and it would have been even faster if pesky real-life work hadn’t gotten in the way).
For me, the setting is the real triumph here. I was immersed in the world of Georgian London, particularly the opulent yet secretive world of the nunneries – the high end brothels that catered to the rich and famous of Georgian society; where the courtesans were skilled in both social graces and the art of pleasing the clientele. The unexpected arrival of his ‘mermaid’ plunges the gentle, considerate merchant Jonah Hancock straight into this glittering world of pleasure and debauchery – and straight into the path of Angelica Neal, my second favourite thing about this book.
Angelica is an absolute delight. Accomplished in every sense of the word, she’s smart, sassy and a devilish delight. Her sharp wit, sense of fun and sheer unbridled vivacity instantly earned her a place at my imaginary ‘fictional characters dinner party’ (I can see her cackling in a corner with Elizabeth Bennet, much to the despair of other guests). Yes, she’s petty and petulant and spoilt but she’s just so much fun. And I loved the way she developed as a character throughout the course of the book whilst retaining all the traits that made her so fascinating to begin with.
And the language – oh, the language. This is a novel told in such a rich, layered way. It’s the literary equivalent of really good chocolate fudge cake – dark and delicious, but without ever becoming sickly. I enjoyed every sentence and the quality of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s research seeps through on every page, from the cadence of the characters’ spoken words to the evocative descriptions of London’s bustling street.
So the setting is amazing, the characters are vivid, the language is mesmerising; what about the plot? Well, it’s perfectly solid. Now if that sounds like damning with faint praise it really isn’t meant to be – it’s just that I’m not sure this is a book that’s reliant on plot to provide its core reading experience. The plot, such as it is, is the perfect backdrop to allow these characters and this world to tell their story but the joy, for me anyway, lay in the way the story was being told. It’s a novel of characterisation – so anyone coming to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock expecting magical mermaids and upstairs/downstairs high-jinks would probably end up slightly disappointed. In this way, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock very much reminded me of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, another book with an apparently mythical creature at its heart that absolutely captivated me, but also focused on small interactions, subtle developments of character and an evocative sense of time and place to tell its intricately woven tale.
So if you’re looking for a book where something happens to move the story forwards on every page, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock might not be for you. But if you want a richly textured historical novel that will suck you into the heart of Georgian London with its atmospheric writing, sharp intelligence and warm humour, then The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock will keep you spellbound in its grasp.