For this month's TOAST Book Club we review The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar.
The year is 1785 and Jonah Hancock, a faded man of middle age with an amiable, ‘meaty’ face and ‘clear and trusting’ eyes, sits in Deptford eagerly awaiting news of his ship, the Calliope. Many years before, the ‘merchant son of a merchant son’ has seen his life diverge ‘from its proper course’ when his wife and son died in childbirth. He has been haunted by their absence ever since.
The tide of Mr Hancock’s ill fortune, however, is about to turn. His most trusted agent, Captain Tysoe Jones, soon returns bearing not a ship laden with goods, but an infant-sized bundle containing the dessicated remains of something wondrous: a tiny mermaid, ‘brown and wizened’ like a forgotten apple, a ‘delicate’ rib cage beneath ‘parchment skin’, with ‘fearful claws’, sharp fangs and the tail of a fish. Soon all of Georgian London is flocking to see the marvel, and paying handsomely for the privilege.
Meanwhile, some seven miles distant across the river in Soho, sits London’s most glamorous courtesan at her dressing table. Angelica Neal is as ‘cool and fragrant as a rosewater custard’, but time is ticking away on her youth and her wealthy benefactor has recently expired. Thrown back on her wits and beauty, Angelica will have to make the most of both if she is to avoid the clutches of her erstwhile employer, Mrs. Chappell, who runs her high class brothel with an iron fist. Unwittingly, it is Mrs Chappell who brings the unlikely pair of Hancock and Angelica together, when she hires his mermaid as the centerpiece for one of her infamous, debauched parties.
Steeped in the sights, sounds, scents and muck of Georgian London, this is a glorious romp of a novel that was the subject of a fierce bidding war when it was first brought to publishers. And unsurprisingly, since launching earlier this month, it has swum straight into the bestseller lists, emulating the success of other recent historical novels such as The Miniaturist and The Essex Serpent.
Imogen Hermes Gowar, an archaeology graduate and former gallery assistant at the British Museum, drew her inspiration from the artefacts around her to conjure this bawdy tale of merchants, seamen, prostitutes and fantastical creatures in a mannered prose style that is both redolent of the period and eminently readable.
Throughout the novel, the likeable but unwitting Mr. Hancock is buffeted by those around him. These may be fallen women but they are not without agency, and the story fairly gallops along, propelled by the strong cast of female characters and their determination to outwit each other. And it is down to Angelica, a decidedly flawed heroine, to ultimately prove herself worthy of both the reader’s respect and Mr. Hancock’s affections.
At the heart of this story is the mermaid herself. Part of Gowar’s genius is in the restraint she exercises with the book’s more fantastical elements. Although the mermaid controls the fates of those around her, she appears only fleetingly, and her voice tantalizes the reader in brief, elliptical interludes: ‘We fill their minds even when we are far away. They fancy they see us even when they do not.’
Ultimately this is a tale of hope and imagination, of glimmering futures glimpsed through the often murky present, and of those who dare to chase their dreams.
The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin. Betsy is the author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected], an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. The book club exists in a purely digital space and we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below. All those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win one of our natural soy wax candles.