One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock is told that one of his captains has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the city, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel, and soon he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto an entirely new course.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has appeared on many ‘most anticipated books of 2018’ lists (including by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer and Stylist) and the hype surrounding it may be enough to put some readers off. But if you can get past the hype, you will find an incredibly vivid and enjoyable historical novel.
At first it seems this is going to be little more than a frothy, bawdy historical novel exploring the hijinks of the aristocracy from the perspective of a courtesan and a merchant newly introduced to high society. But the more you read the more themes and clever storylines Gowar begins to explore, including (among other things) femininity, sexuality, race and class.
Without doubt Gowar is going to be an author to watch from now on. Her writing style is so vivid she seems to effortlessly conjure Georgian London on the page. From dim coffee houses to high society balls, we are taken on a fascinating journey through the eighteenth century. The prose glitters with atmosphere and the historical detail of the dialogue is wonderful to read.
Her characters are likewise vividly drawn. Each of them is introduced in a few deft strokes but as the story goes on layers and layers are peeled back until they feel so real, it seems absurd that they don’t exist in real life. I loved spending time with both Mr Hancock and Angelica Neal, two characters fighting to control the way they are viewed by others. This is a novel that proves again and again that it is what you make of yourself, not what you are born, that matters.
Gowar also has a lot of pertinent things to say about women, in particular the way they are often categorised in one of two ways: the whore or the angel of the house. Angelica struggles throughout the novel to free herself from the former label and prove herself good enough to be the latter, before realising how little control she has over how other people see her.
This novel has been compared to 2016’s runaway success The Essex Serpent, and there are certainly similarities, especially in its glimpses of magical realism (although these only take place towards the end). In my opinion, this book far outpaces The Essex Serpent; it’s much more engrossing and entertaining.
I imagine that some will complain of the story’s somewhat meandering pace and if you don’t have large chunks of time to spend reading it, it probably will feel slow. Best to settle down for a quiet afternoon (or perhaps put it on your list to take on holiday) and allow yourself to be carried along on the journey. Its only failings were a significant slowing of pace in the last 100 pages or so, and a few loose ends left over.
This is a fantastic historical novel, and I can’t wait to see what Gowar does next.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is published on 25th January.
Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.