The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 24 Feb 2018

Member Reviews

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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Well researched and richly descriptive first book. A sense of pathos running throughout right from the start when we hear of Mr Hancock's situation. It's hard to say more without spoiling the magic of the mermaid for future readers...
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This novel follows a man who searches for a mermaid to woo a prostitute. That's about the gist of it. The writing is lovely and very reminiscent of the era, the characters are vivid and the quest for the mermaid becomes engaging. It took me a while to really get into the story at first as there are a few narratives intertwined. But by about half the book, I was really engaged and wanted to know where it was going. This novel reminded me a lot of The Miniaturist (in style), so I expected the ending to be a lot more haunting or sad, but I was pleased.
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This is a touching, charming book about a lonely merchant, Jonah Hancock, who receives a mermaid from one of his captains in exchange for selling one of his ships. After captivating most of London society with this creature, Jonah meets courtesan Anjeclia Neal, after her notorious madame, Mrs. Chappell, commandeers the mermaid for a week to show in her house. As predicted, Jonah falls for Anjelica, but what follows isn’t your usual romance. This is a very atmospheric novel, with some magic realism, along with a few darker moments. Gowar captures the late 18th Century in all its rich detail.
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I've struggled to review "The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock." There's no question on the quality and evocative nature of the novel, it's a beautifully written book, transporting you right to 18th century England. This is the story of Jonah Hancock, a merchant, who stumbles into possessing a mermaid of all things, and the consequences of owning this "curiosity" in a time where the lines between normality and depravity were blurred. My struggle with the novel comes towards the end, and the speed at which it all unravels... you commit to a long and well-constructed build-up, hoping to an ending of stronger consequence, and then you're left wondering what it could've been. Whilst the final act is not perhaps as good as the first, it's still a lovely read, evocative and haunting, and worth a go. 4 out of 5.
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Now I want to contrast and compare briefly [the latest Jean-François Parot's mystery] with another novel that is set on the other side of the Channel during the very same period: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. I got it as an ARC through Netgalley, but I’m totally stalling at 10%. The book is just as rich with research and period details as Parot’s, but the pace is so slow that I’m going to take a break (a long one, possibly forever?). I was first charmed by the beautiful cover art and then I thought that I would learn a lot about people living and breathing at the same time of Commissaire Nicolas Le Floch but not having the same concerns. So far I have met Mr. Hancock and also the high-class prostitute Angelica Neale and it made me think of characters with similar ambitions and prospects on the Paris scene of the 1780s. Both writers adopt a very different point of view. Gowar switches points of view between different characters but remains at their level, while Parot remains firmly behind Le Floch’s back but give us an occasional head up on what it means nationally, politically or socially, or even at international level. I am a bit disappointed because The Mermaid… is gorgeous in writing and seemed right up my alley, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters so far.
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