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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

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Member Reviews

This Georgian historical novel is delightful, impeccably written, and easy to consume. While it may seem slow at times, this is just part of its charm. One feels very immersed in the world Ms Gowar has created, and Jonah and Angelica are as fleshy and raw as ever. This is one for readers of historical, literary, and perhaps even, speculative fiction. It surprises in all the right ways, and gives back everything you'd expect and more.

Gowar is one to watch.
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This was sadly a DNF for me, although that could have more to do with the timing. I maybe wasn't in the mood for this story then. It's one I am still a little intrigued by and will pop back to sometime.
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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was one of my most delicious reads of 2018.  The review has been a long time coming because I just had so many thoughts. I read it once, read it again, gained more thoughts and then felt stumped all over again about how to begin. I really longed for someone in my offline life to have read it too but alas, despite several unsubtle attempts to foist it on friends as a gift, nobody I know has done so. It's a headlong plunge through 1800s Britain, diving into ideas of desire, commerce, class, liberty and the meaning of womanhood itself. Flipping Regency London flat on its back, Gowar examines its seedy underbelly and the result is spectacular.

Merchant Jonah Hancock is respectable and responsible, a man well suited to his place in life, who has learned 'not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth'. As the novel opens, he is anxiously expecting the return of one of his ships. If it has foundered, he will face ruin. However, the ship's captain returns not with cargo but with something rather more exotic - a 'wizened freak', a 'malevolent beast', or is it in fact a dead mermaid? Assured that this object is far more valuable than the expected delivery could ever have been, Mr Hancock sets out to make it earn its keep and puts it on display.

It is this action which brings Mr Hancock into the path of Angelica Neal, freelance courtesan and aspiring society lady. She finds herself in a delicate situation since her aristocratic patron has recently passed away and at the grand old age of twenty-seven, she rather fears that she might be past it. Reluctant to return to the control of her grotesque erstwhile madam Mrs Chappell, she declines the protection of her old 'nunnery', more accurately London's most exclusive brothel. Indeed, it is Bet Chappell who has hired the services of Mr Hancock's mermaid as a centrepiece for her latest party and in so doing, she draws Angelica and Mr Hancock together. A more ill-matched pairing could hardly be imagined. Or could it?

This book has a real fluid feel; the characters soar and twist and fly through the shallow waters and deep currents. Gowar has clearly steeped herself in the Georgian era, its culture and its language. As a long-term fan, it was fun to spot references to Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire et al. and also to notice that there were more than a few points of parallel between the lives of Angelica Neal and real-life celebrity courtesan Emma Hamilton. Yet Mermaid's most obvious forebear is Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus with a similar feel of high society magical realism. Mr Hancock seeks out a mermaid to win Angelica's affections. The one his ship finds - sending an ominous note 'It is alive!' - brings with it doom and disquiet.

Indeed, the novel is peopled with a comparable cast of colourful characters from Mrs Chappell who is 'built like an armchair', pissing in a chamber-pot in the carriage after too many cups of tea. Surrounding her are her 'nuns' who are so clearly still children; red-headed Elinor, Kitty the dockside child who is forbidden to speak until she has completed her elocution lessons, then there is Polly, the bi-racial prostitute who realises that she cannot and will not bear her situation. A regular visitor is Bel Fortescue, who started out with Angelica in Mrs Chappell's establishment but now feminist who just may be about to become a duchess. Like the mermaid in the tank, the characters are all trapped in their various ways, whether by gender, race or class. Mrs Chappell declares that the best nuns to be had are those she finds off the street, since the daughters of tradesmen give themselves too many airs and graces.

By contrast, Mr Hancock is a tradesman and untrained in the ways of finer society. He is all too often governed by his fabulous dragon of a sister Hester Lippard. Her daughter longs for better and is bright enough that she just might rise above her situation. Yet when Mr Hancock finally encounters the upper classes at Mrs Chappell's nunnery, he is alarmed to discover that these men speak in baby talk. There is a real lurching 'through the looking glass' feel as Mr Hancock steps from his own respectable drawing room and into the seedy boudoir of Chappell and company. Gowar's thoughts on social mobility seemed particularly pertinent, 'For class is a type of bubble, a membrane around one, and although one might grow within this membrane, and strain against it, it is impossible to break free from it.'

One thing that surprised me was that more was not made of the link between mermaids and prostitution. In Elizabethan England, the word 'mermaid' was a synonym for whore. Mary Queen of Scots was infamously drawn as one (see left) during the uprising against her after she married Bothwell, the man widely believed to have been involved in the murder of her second husband. The contrast between Mary the whore mermaid and her cousin Elizabeth the Virgin Queen could hardly have been made more stark. To be a mermaid is to be a siren, luring virtuous men to their doom. The link is obvious in Gowar's novel but remains unexplored and I was surprised that other reviews failed to mention it. Angelica shifts between life as a 'mermaid' or courtesan and her new existence as Mrs Hancock, all while the living mermaid beneath her home seethes in its tank.

I have always tended to avoid novels featuring representations of prostitution. It's not that I'm a prude (oh no wait, I am), but it's more that a lot of the popular books that centre around that (e.g. The Crimson Petal and the White) never really seemed that interesting. By contrast, I was mesmerised here by how Gowar contrasted the glamour and the savage ruthlessness of what these women are doing. Mrs Chappell's girls do their embroidery and sit in white gowns and are sent out for their walks and they learn their lessons. And then in the evening, they have their pubic hair dyed green and they dance around naked for the visiting gentlemen while Mrs Chappell hands out condoms soaked in milk. There was something so sickening in the brutal contrast as Elinor and Polly are posted off to a New Year's party full of anticipation and high spirits, then Polly stands stunned as one of the gentlemen cheerfully lists all they plan to do to them. In that moment, she is Cinderella and midnight has struck - all the magic vanished.

For all its period feel, many of Gowar's observations on desire and commerce feel alarmingly close to the present day. Given the recent Jeffrey Epstein scandals, it would be wrong to suppose that the world we live in is so very different. There is something powerful in the way that Angelica rages to Mr Hancock's niece that she had better hold tight to her virtue since if she loses it, it will be someone else who profits. I was also caught by the way that each of the characters long for something out of reach. Floating in the water, the mermaid brings with her an agonising sense of discontent.

These women all long for freedom and nobody fights harder for it than Angelica. She wants to soar in society and be everywhere admired and desired, declaring 'I am as free as I want to be, and freer than any wife'. Yet, even while she insists that she is 'never happier' than in a man's embrace, the narrator confesses the truth of it, that she has in fact 'endured many encounters that were not to her liking: some too brief, some too extended; some brutal, some tentative; some bizarre, some tedious'. She has had to work hard to survive and there is no clear way to do so without a male protector. Even at her lowest, Angelica clings tightly to 'the knowledge that it is better always to be fierce than to be sad'.

It was fascinating to notice how Angelica and her fellow courtesans made so little distinction between the lives they led and those of married women. To their cynical eyes, to be a wife is merely a more closely governed form of the same work. Angelica expresses her horror that Bel has agreed to marry her long-time protector, 'You will be kept'. What else then has she been all these years? But yet we see that there is a darker servitude to being a wife, who cannot leave. A wife doomed to childbearing, a labour that only ceases when your body gives out. A wife tied to keeping the house, no longer courted, her beauty faded. There is respectability but no way out.

Yet even while there are hints of true darkness, Mermaid has a real warmth. There is genuine tenderness between the new Mr and Mrs Hancock. There is real kindness among Angelica's new neighbours, particularly the grand matron who stoutly refuses to condemn Angelica's previous wicked life since to do so would not be Christian. While other reviews complained about the loose threads, I often appreciate an author who has the courage to leave spaces for the reader to fill in. The courage it took for the black servant Simeon reach out to Polly. The hope that she did manage to make a good escape to fairer horizons.

The fact that it has taken me two years to truly sum up my thoughts about this book is a pretty firm sign that it inspired some pretty strong feelings. Another sure sign is that I have bought my own copy despite being supplied with a galley, and the fact that I have passed on copies as presents to several friends and family members. Mermaid makes some incredibly thought-provoking links between commodity and desire and the level of period detail was mesmerising. Gowar also has a truly Austen-esque gift for Regency prose, with corkers such as this line to describe Mr Hancock; 'A man without the immediate demands of wife and children finds himself called upon for a multitude of little wants elsewhere'. Another favourite was the description of his sister Mrs Lippard, 'straight and cool as a steel pin, with ten fine children to exert her will upon the world'. One short line and the character immediately springs to life on the page.

Mermaid is a sumptuous and immersive treat of a novel, taking the reader through London from the docks to the slums through refined houses of ill repute. The book sparkles and soars, and although it is an escapist fantasy with heavy helpings of magical realism, I felt that Gowar still struck at some poignant truths about desire, about the way the world is always in search of novelty but also about the fact that we can reach out to each other in kindness no matter what has gone on before. I loved, loved, loved this book and I can't wait to see what Gowar will do next.
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This book turned out to not be my cup of tea.  I did push through so that I could find out what happened in the end but overall it’s not a genre I tend to go for.  I did enjoy followed Angelica and seeing how her story progressed but I could have done with the mermaid.
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Really enjoyable read. Good characters and a Good story. Well worth a read. Think others will enjoy.
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I REALLY wanted to love this. Having found The Essex Serpent absolutely fantastic, I was happy to read that this had been compared to it so many times. 

The writing itself is beautiful and eloquent. It is obviously very well researched with incredible historical details peppered throughout. What sticks with me most is the descriptions of the settings. The sumptuous fabrics, the period furniture and the delicate lighting. 

I also enjoyed the character. They were well formed and I wanted to hear more about them with every turn of the page.

What I struggled with was the plot. I had expected more magical realism or suggestion of myth and magic. 

A fair debut and I do look forward to Gowers future work.
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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 shops, 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. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.

Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.

This was certainly a bit different.  Set in ye olde worlde - I always struggle with historic fiction - the writing is beautiful but not overly flowery and I am glad I persevered with it.  I enjoyed the unusual nature of the story and a few twists along the way that I didn't anticipate.  Something alternative to enjoy.
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A strangely engrossing read but not quite satisfying read. Gowar’s lush Regency world is wonderfully realised in all its glamour and scurrility, from slums to High Society “nunneries” (read, brothels). There’s an impressive sense of time and place as Gowar revels in her setting with her gleeful use of Georgian cant and the seedy side of the time often associated with the manners and sensibility of Austen. Her historical realism is faultless and her detail both abundant and witty. The characters, particularly the stellar cast of women, are deep and the writing is assured, humorous and intricate and there are hints of Angela Carter in their depth and strength as well as their gaudy exuberance. Her descriptions verge, in the very best way, on the Dickensian.

With all of this marvellous background texture, and it take some time for it to be established, the rather abrupt shift to a more magical-realist style towards the end was a little clumsy. Though the mermaid had been a feature of the narrative for some time the transition to the dreamlike style and overt symbolism of the latter part was imperfect. There is an overabundance of storylines which left it feeling a little flabby in places and the narrative became increasingly unbalanced as if, after meticulously and entertainingly constructing the flamboyant Georgian verisimilitude Gowar wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
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Such a beautifully written book with deep and complex characters, I really wanted to enjoy it. Unfortunately whilst the writing was so lovely, I felt the story was a little slow and it didn't grip me as I'd hoped it would.
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I love historical books like this - right up my street! Read it in a couple of sittings and enjoyed it!
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A beautifully written historical tale with a touch of weird and a fair amount of bawdiness. 

I found it a little slow in places but still very immersive. The main characters were at times quite unlikeable, but always well drawn and entertaining, and I especially liked the secondary characters Polly and Sukie (who could have both done with more page time in my opinion) and Mrs Chappell was revoltingly brilliant. 

I'll definitely be reading any future novels Imogen Hermes Gowar might write. 

(ARC provided by publisher via NetGalley)
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This erudite, well-researched debut captured my imagination and I definitely hope for more from this author. It made me view Deptford in an entirely new light, and it painted history in such a way that it felt immediately relatable.
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Quite a few things in ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ by Imogen Hermes Gowar are not as they seem. The mermaid, which may or not be real, is actually dead and quite gruesome. And the story starts with shipping merchant Mr Hancock, not Mrs. He is a widower. 
This story about London in 1785 is a full-on feast for the senses and at first is a bit overwhelming: wind ‘sings’, raindrops ‘burst’, skin is ‘scuffed and stained’, a face is ‘meaty’. But then I fell into the life of Jonah Hancock and wondered when the mermaid, and Mrs Hancock, would appear. Soon the captain of the Calliope, one of Jonah’s ships, returns homes without the ship but with a mermaid.
‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ overflows with contrasts: Deptford and Mary-le-Bone are villages outside London, whales are dismembered and rendered beside the river but in nearby Blackheath the air is to be treasured. It seems unlikely that the path of Jonah, conservative, hard-working, will intersect with Angelica Neal, a former upper class prostitute. But thanks to the mermaid, they meet and their lives take different turns as a result. Gowar juxtaposes sumptuous silks, satins and pearls of the girls at Mrs Chappell’s high-class brothel, where they are tutored at some expense in dancing and singing, performing masques for their high-paying clientele; with the potatoes peeled and stockings darned by Jonah’s niece Sukie and maid Bridget. The beauty of the whores, the ugliness of the mummified mermaid. Contrasts are everywhere.
The story is slow to build and I admit to skipping some paragraphs of description, many dedicated to situations and characters with no bearing on the main storyline. But then I would stop and admire a sentence like this, ‘Overnight, Deptford’s heady miasma had begun to settle, like silt in a puddle, but sunrise stirs it back up again and Mr Hancock stumps through that great rich stink of baking bread and rotten mud and old blood and fresh-sawn wood with the cat trotting on her tiptoes beside him.’ Over-stuffed with imagery, but beautifully written. I enjoyed the final third but was left regretting threads and characters left dangling that could have enriched the story; Tysoe Jones and Polly particularly. 
This is a bawdy morality tale set in Georgian London that issues the warning to be careful what you wish for and compares inner and outer beauty, man’s treatment of women and the exploitation of a mermaid for money. The story is predictable, given the tradition of mermaids, and because of this the pacing would benefit from more audacious plot twists and turns. I liked Jonah and wanted to shout to him, ‘have nothing to do with her’. He is simply too nice.
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I listened to the audiobook, which was VERY good. A taxidermy mermaid and a courtesan take us on a magical tour of the different classes of Georgian London. The last 10% was my favourite and should have happened a lot sooner.
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Actual rating 4.5/5 stars. This is my ninth book read in the Women's Prize for Fiction longlist.

A merchant comes into far more fortune than he could have ever perceived owning, but with it comes the realisation of the extent of his own happiness and just how much his new situation can alter it. A courtesan experiences a change in circumstance that sees her once again thrust upon society, but she then is faced with the dawning understanding of her inability to take charge of her own destiny and design a life of her own choosing. And it is the corpse of an infant mermaid, maliciously featured and peculiar in design, that draws these disparate characters into a twist of fortunes none could ever previously have anticipated. 

This was such a strange and bizarre story, and yet, in other respects, it wasn't strange and bizarre at all. Given the fantastical sounding title, I was anticipating the mermaid in question to have more of a larger focus in the story. The presence of such an entity was what directed the characters to interact and for events to unfold as they did, without the mermaid in question actually featuring much at all. Initially, I was awaiting for a diversion from reality and a return to the fantastical but I soon became immersed in the world and the intricate everyday lives of those who lived there.

This provided a fascinating historical insight with the lightest sprinkling of the otherworldy and delivered a resonating story-line which exuded emotion and enthralled me much more than any mermaid alone could have done.
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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has gorgeous writing, it really does and we're convinced, had we had the time, we would have devoured this novel, but everytime we go to pick it up whether it be this digital copy that we were graciously provided with or the physical copy that we bought ourselves, life gets in the way. So, this review isn't really a review of the full book, but more of a we can't wait to find time to dive into the glittering world provided on its pages in the future type of review.
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This book started off well. The descriptive language was beautiful and the scene setting narrative really brought the book to life. The characters were very 3 dimensional and the story was interesting and well set up. Unfortunately as I read on I felt the story never really got anywhere. I felt it was a beautifully written book, but I was a little bit disappointed. I’m not even sure by what, or what I was expecting. I know people absolutely love this book, it just wasn’t for me, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a beautiful read
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A beautiful debut about a lonely merchants quest to find a mermaid and woo a prostitue. Initially i found this difficult to get into, but a few chapters in I was hooked
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I read the first 70 pages early in April, set it aside for a while, skimmed another 60 or so pages late on in the month, and decided to give up. Gowar has a very accomplished and knowing narrative voice, and the historical setting is totally convincing. But I didn’t get drawn into the story. A merchant unwittingly acquires a hideous fish-like creature and decides to make as much money from displaying it as he can. Meanwhile, a high-class madam decides she needs a new gentleman protector for one of her best whores, Angelica (this strand reminded me of The Crimson Petal and the White). Given the title, I think I know what we can expect. The scenes set in the brothel particularly bored me, and the thought of another 350+ pages appalled me. Once you’ve stopped enjoying a book, even if it is on a bunch of prize lists (e.g. the Women’s Prize shortlist and the Desmond Elliott Prize longlist), you know it’s time to put it down. Perhaps I’ll try it again another time.
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Reading this novel was an absolutely immersive experience of the late eighteenth century world with an eclectic cast of characters from sex workers to mermaids. The writing was rich in the highest sense of the word. Gowar's writing far exceeded my expectations from a debut novel writer and established her as an author I'd definitely want to go back to for more. More importantly, she imbued the feel of the late eighteenth century period in her writing flawlessly which made the reading experience effortless. I feel a lot of people shy away from historical fiction/literary fiction novels because they think that they'd have to put in that extra effort to fully enjoy the work but for this book I can say with surety that no one requires that effort, for me it read with the ease of reading a YA novel and that says something. 

The plot for me was pretty straight-forward yet not predictable. I knew and guessed mostly correct what was going to happen yet the way the author took to reach that end goal made the reading experience fun for me. Simultaneously though, Gowar's long road to reach her goal was also my problem. The novel is a good chunk and divided aptly into three volumes, out of which the first one kept me on the edge of my seat because of all the mermaid action, the third was gothic and added depth to the novel. However, the second, although pulled the book together wasn't really my cup of tea. The focus on Angelica and Mrs. Chappell did give an understanding to their respective characters, at the same time they left loose ends and at points left me utterly disinterested in continuing the novel. The sheer want of knowing what happens in the end made me power through. Moreover, the story of some characters like Polly which was put into focus in the second volume, I felt was kind of left unattended. As an other amazing reviewer put it perfectly, "I question whether the three volumes really hold together, and if the almost Gothic air of the third belongs with the brilliant action of the first or the social exposé of the second. Hence my four-star rating." 

I loved all the fierce female characters from Mrs. Lippard, Sukie, Angelica to Mrs. Chappell and Mrs. Fortescue and the fact that the author didn't fall in the pit of depicting how every woman just wanted a suitor to tend to her needs in the eighteenth century whilst acknowledging that that was what was expected of good women then. It was also a fresh reading experience in the sense that instead of upper class/upper-middle class characters which is the route mostly eighteenth century based novels tend to take, the novel centered on working/middle class characters such as Mr. Hancock's, who however rich he grew, was rooted into his humble background. 

Overall, this book is worth all the hype and I'm glad that it made the women's prize shortlist, well-deserved!
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