An historical novel, with a touch of magical realism, set in 1780s London, in which a prosperous merchant finds his quiet life upended when he unexpectedly receives a most unusual creature—and meets a most extraordinary woman.
With its richly imagined Georgian London setting, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a cracking historical novel, with a twinge of the surreal, about passion and obsession, dreams and reality. Imogen Hermes Gowar may be a first-time author, but she has a distinctive voice so assured and so readable that she could be a veteran. The novel immerses you in a world in a way that reminds me of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell ... 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.
There are deep currents roiling here, but the book takes its time setting them in motion. On the whole, investment by the reader is amply repaid. The author swims like a fish in Georgian cant and vocabulary. She has worked in museums and looks perceptively and attentively at objects, as well as exploring the line between sham and showmanship, sincerity and sensationalism, promoting and pimping ... There is much to chew on here, and much to savour, presented with wit and showmanship. Would that showmanship were a gender-neutral word, though, because all the elan of this book is female, from the madams running their girls, to the book’s most obvious literary forebear, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Imogen Hermes Gowar delights in the feminine fakery of mermaids, but as a writer she is the real deal.
Leisurely told and leavened with a knowing wit, Gowar’s debut brims with colorful period vernacular and delicious phrasings: one woman is 'built like an armchair, more upholstered than clothed;' another has a 'mouth like low tide.' Concerned with the issue of women’s freedom, Gowar offers a panoramic view of Georgian society, from its coffeehouses and street life to class distinctions and multicultural populace. Recommended for fans of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (2014), this is a sumptuous historical feast.