‘We live in a modern age, sir; the things that are wrought may be quite as extraordinary as those that are found.’
I’d like to begin this review with two interesting movie facts.
Did you know???
- Out of 127 minutes, Jurassic Park only has fourteen minutes of on-screen dinosaur time.
- The shark doesn’t appear until around the eighty minute mark in Jaws.
These facts sprung to mind as I read Imogen Hermes Gowar’s impressive debut novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. The curious title catches your attention, but this tale is so much more than mermaids. Just like Steven Spielberg’s artful use of suspense, this produces an endless amount of intrigue and entertainment as the novel progresses.
For a debut novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a marvellous exercise in world building. Imogen Hermes Gowar creates a remarkably detailed picture of 18th century London. This is a time when the British Empire still rules the seas and the city continues to rapidly grow and expand. Society is largely divided into the very rich and very poor allowing prostitution to be one of society’s guilty pleasures.
Imogen Hermes Gowar’s prose makes this busting city come to life in a cacophony of sights, smells and sounds. Characters both minor and major make the search for survival and status seem very real. This put me very much in mind of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, which was another suspenseful read based in a similar society and era. Interestingly, both of these authors were inspired by museum exhibits to write their novels (see bottom of page.)
‘I am advised to forget,’ he says, ‘but if I did not have the pain, I would have no memory of them at all.’
The story is told from two angles. Firstly we are introduced to Mr. Hancock who makes his coin as a shipping merchant in Deptford. While secure in his wealth, Mr. Hancock is a long way from engaging the upper society of gentlemen until fate provides him with a rare opportunity. One of his sea captains returns from sea without his ship and instead produces the most unusual of packages. Little does he know it at the time but this unusual gift will open many doors for Mr. Hancock.
‘But amongst all this brave order there are those who have fallen loose from it, as screws from a fine machine. In this city of a thousand trades, there is only one that the women return to as if they were called to it.’
The novel’s other main character is Angelica Neal. Miss Neal has returned to high society in London after a brief absence and is determined to make a go at survival on her own. She still has the charm and looks to attract the finest suitors and she makes a living out of attending parties and gracing the finest theatre boxes. Her previous madam, Mrs. Chappell, has other plans however and retains a hold over her old charge. Before she is truly free, Ms Neal must both repay Mrs. Chappell and find a man to fund her extravagant lifestyle.
The chief strength of this novel for me was the manner in which it dealt with the place of women not just in 18th century society, but also in the modern age. I feel that this was the hidden message of the author’s work. This is not a secret feminist manifesto but a subtle comparison of gender specific roles in society.. As is the case in every other aspect of this novel, the author writes about this with a perfect sense of balance. In fact, I don’t think I have read such a finely balanced novel in a long time.
‘Men are not fearful; they build one another to greatness. Women believe their only power is in tearing one another down.’
Also, this particular quote stood out for me because of the recent Anthony Joshua furore in the news.
‘Strong passions are troublesome in a girl, but intolerable in a woman; check her now, Mrs.Hancock, before she gains a reputation.’
At its heart though, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is simply a good story. It combines historical fiction with magic realism to create something truly special. Is there room for a sequel? Possibly so. But as a standalone novel, this is a fine example of fantastic storytelling.
‘They file down the hill laden with buckets and brooms and brushes, and emerge some hours later weeping into their aprons.’