The below review is spoiler free.
Apologies for the total lack of posting these last couple of months. August was an absolute write-off for me reading wise – I had so much heavy health-related stuff going on that my concentration was utterly non-existent. While off work for two weeks I’d planned to read four-to-six books; I managed the grand total of zilch. I hadn’t the ability to focus on anything more complex than fanfiction.
Halfway through September found me still struggling with the health stuff and also way monstrously behind with my reading for my book club. I needed to read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield in a week and then read my own selection for the club The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes-Gowar by the end of the following week. After all – I couldn’t turn up to book club not having read the book I chose myself!
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was absolutely a cover-inspired buy. I was drawn in by the elegant artwork; the jacket features a striking design of delicate seashells, fauna and sparkling gold embossing. Afterwards, a look at the blurb told me it was historical fiction and so therefore very much up my street and the purchase was inevitable.
Set in 1785 in London, the book follows two parallel storylines. The initial protagonist is Mr Jonah Hancock, a moderately well to do shipping merchant who has lived alone for many years following the tragic death of his wife in childbirth, along with his new-born son. Having anxiously awaited the return of one of his ships from a long voyage, he is startled to discover that the captain, a longstanding acquaintance and an honourable man, has sold the ship and all of its contents in order to purchase what he claims is a bona fide mermaid. Upon examination, Mr Hancock finds that the ugly little creature does seem to the be the genuine article. Still, he laments, he shall be ruined, but the captain suggests that this mermaid will make his fortune…why does he not exhibit it?
This decision brings Mr Hancock into the world inhabited by Angelica, a high profile courtesan. Left desolate by the death of the duke who had kept her as his mistress for two years, she and her friend/servant Eliza are anxiously looking for a way to secure their future income. Spoilt, selfish and utterly without any appreciation of practicality, Angelica has no intention of returning to the brothel of her early days; she means to be great! All she therefore has to do is find herself a nice wealthy gentleman of good social standing.
Alighting on their respective trajectories, these two very unlikely companions are set on a collision course that encompasses obsession, love, betrayal, superstition and the brutal realities facing the women of the era – especially the poor ones.
Initially, I struggled with the book, but I think it was because I was forcing myself regimentally to read it because of the book club deadline, rather than reading for pure enjoyment. However, once I passed the first fifth of the book and really got into the story, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it a very compelling read.
The sense of the period was excellent throughout the whole novel, for the rich and the poor and for the male and female characters. It never shied away from unpleasant details – as I mentioned above, the dreadful situation facing poor women, and prostitutes in particular. Assault, disease, destitution, exploitation and the hypocrisy of the men who frequented brothels only to decry prostitutes in public are all touched upon.
The characterisation was also tremendous. The melancholy of Mr Hancock’s early existence really touched me, in particular his constant consideration of what his son would have been doing had he lived. Although he was not the liveliest of protagonists, he gave such a powerful sense of being a truly good man that it was impossible not to root for him. Although I hated Angelica initially, finding her entitled and hopelessly naïve, her character arc was so well constructed and beset by twists that I was on her side too by the end.
This book really transcends genre; it’s impossible to fit it into one category. It simultaneously explores romance, social commentary, the supernatural and the reality of a rags to riches journey. The use of language was also exquisite; I love it when an author can not only create a wonderful story but can do so with rich, rhythmic, textured prose.
I’m certainly glad I spotted the cover in my local Waterstones and even gladder I plodded through my initial struggles with the first section of the book. It’s a fantastically engaging, gorgeously written read and if you’re in the mood for melancholy yet sparkling historical fiction that doesn’t pull its punches, then this is very much the book for you. Personally, I think it’s just begging for a good TV adaptation now!
My rating: 4.5/5 stars