If you take Charles Dickens, add a good dose of magical realism, you’ll have a sense of THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK by Imogene Hermes Gowar. Gowar’s debut offers abundant pleasures—it is vibrantly imagined and lushly detailed, occasionally raunchy—yet always remarkable.
Set in London’s 18th century, Gowar’s world is one of gaudy, embarrassing excess—culinary, sexual, and sartorial—for the privileged and those who pleasure them. The quantity of rich, grainy details keeps us firmly grounded in time and place, making Gowar’s creation feel intensely real.
The story builds on twin plots. At the onset, we meet Jonah Hancock, a seemingly dull, lonely middle-aged merchant, who owns a large trading vessel which plies the seas around the globe. Despite Jonah’s drab exterior, which is made very evident, we’re drawn to him—it’s hard not to fall for his kindness and humility.
The second plot revolves around a beautiful but over-the-hill courtesan. At 27, Angelica Neal worries about competition from the freshly-blossomed younger set. Although vain and shallow, Angelica is also keenly astute, and we watch with equal amounts of admiration and shock as she negotiates her way around the potholes of her professional and personal life.
Into this otherwise realistic novel, Gowar introduces a mermaid. She places it in Jonah’s possession and uses it as a plot device to bring the two main characters together.
It’s a brilliant literary ruse. What makes it such fun is that, in a historical novel so carefully depicted, the presence of a mermaid feels, well… quite plausible. Even more fun, this rarest of objects defies our expectations. It is hardly the siren of ancient lore—a creature so irresistible that it tantalized men to their deaths.
But what poor Jonah has is merely the remains of a mermaid. It is hideous: small, desiccated and leathery, with a skeletal face, toothy snarl, and claw-like hands poised as if to strike. Oh, the wonderful irony! A fantasy of love and desire turns out to be a menacing, nasty-looking creature.
No matter; the creature is still a rarity, and so Jonah decides to put it on display. Eager to get a view, the public is willing to line up—and pay money—to see it. The mermaid and Jonah become a cause celebre.
All of which prompts Bet Chappell, the “abbess” of London’s most famous brothel, to pay a visit to Jonah. She offers to rent his mermaid and to feature it in an event at her “establishment”— an event, she assures Jonah, that London’s finest will pay dearly to attend. Jonah agrees, and what transpires is uproariously depraved: an orgiastic (literally) bacchanalia. Should you be squeamish, hold your nose or skim through it quickly.
The purpose of the party is to introduce Jonah to Angelica, and in this, Mrs. Chappell’s plan is successful. But only barely (pun intended). From here on, the two—Jonah to Angelica—begin their pas de deux in a complicated friendship, on one hand, and unrequited love on the other.
But hold on! Another mermaid enters the scene. Yet here is where I leave you, dear reader, because I have no wish to spoil all that lays in wait for you. This novel is wondrous, a marvel of storytelling, especially for a young, untried author. Recommended.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.