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.
‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ by Imogen Hermes Gowar [UK: Harvill Secker]
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