Book Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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.

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Imogen Hermes Gowar was inspired to write fiction by the artefacts with which she worked in museums. In 2013 she won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia (UEA)and this is her debut novel.

Gowar is destined to join the long list of distinguished UEA alumni which includes Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Kazuo Ishiguro; Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan; and historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. This book has now been listed for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize.

The author’s deft writing and clever use of slang draws a believable picture of the world of late 18th century Georgian England. The first mermaid we meet, caught in the Java sea, is a freak show exhibit of a dried-up foetus sewn onto a tail. The merchant, Mr Hancock, makes a fortune by exhibiting it to crowds in London and, when he hires it out to an exclusive brothel, he meets courtesan Angelica Neal, a human siren.

Although she is vain and immoral, the reader can’t help but like her and wish the best for her as she lives right on the edge. At times she is her own worst enemy when she believes the honeyed words of her latest lover and finds herself all but destitute. Mr Hancock can’t help but be attracted to Angelica and it is he who rescues her by marrying her.

Gowar’s prostitutes make the point that marriage is as much a transaction as their work is in the brothel, even if money is not exchanged as directly. They assert that there is no more freedom in marriage than they have in being bound to the brothel for their food, lodging and clothes. The contrast between the beautiful working girls and the desiccated mermaid on display is stark and it is the young women’s tableau vivant which stimulates the rich clients and disgusts Mr Hancock. The author uses this to emphasise the contrasts between surface and reality, show and sincerity.

That the ‘real’ mermaid doesn’t make an appearance until very late in the book is not an issue as the lively writing and settings encourage the reader to find out ‘what’s next’. When she does appear, the mermaid certainly makes her presence felt as she has a terrible effect on those who come near her. Kept in a vat used for boiling down whale blubber, the warehouse men are so disturbed by her presence, feeling hopeless and depressed, that they insist Mr Hancock move her and then they demolish the building. He installs her in a shell grotto in a folly at his new home. The new house should be a place of joy and happiness for him and his family but they too are affected by the same mournful feelings and everything seems to go awry as he and his wife draw apart.

I see this book as an allegorical tale, perhaps relating back to the shallowness of our celebrity-focussed culture, being famous for something that doesn’t really matter plus the dangers of wanting to be rich. Even though he had lost his first wife and infant son, Mr Hancock was perfectly content as a normal merchant and made a good living. It was only after he had realised his ambition to find and give Angelica a mermaid that his obsession with the creature threatened his happiness. Angelica was the stronger of the two as she became determined to release the mermaid into the underground pool and break the spell.

A cracking read on many levels.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  9

Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: January 2018
RRP: $32.99

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