The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock continues the trend of historical novels that are filled with rich detail, the glamour and grunge of the city, and a vivid cast of characters. This novel also brings in a slightly fantastical element with the mermaid, which I think makes it a bit more original than some other novels in this vein. From the start the novel is very engaging and immersive, full of descriptive detail and a wide cast of characters. It is written in the present tense, which I wasn’t sure about at first as this can often be misused, but I was quickly convinced that it was the right choice for this novel.
We are introduced to Jonah Hancock, a merchant who has recently lost his wife and son. He owns several ships, and it is the captain of one of these ships who comes to him with the mermaid – a small creature caught from the sea. It appears to be dead by the time it makes its way to Mr Hancock, but it is a marvel nonetheless. They quickly come upon the idea of displaying it to the public for a fee. We then meet Angelica Neal, a courtesan striving for more independence. Her world is just as vividly drawn as that of Mr Hancock, if not more so, and we are drawn into her story from the start. These two characters are drawn together and it all goes from there…
There were times when I thought the language got a little too flowery or affected, especially with the use of the present tense, but I don’t think it went over the top – rather it served to create another world for the characters and the story. It is a very dense and developed world, filled with well-developed characters, both the central couple and those around them. Their relationship is very interesting, as they are drawn to each other but you’re not always sure how much of a game is also being played, on either side. As my fellow shadow panel members Susan and Amanda have pointed out in their reviews, this novel could be read as a morality tale and there are shades of ‘be careful what you wish for’, in terms of relationships but also the mermaid itself and everything it brings with it.
I’m not sure I would have got around to picking up this book if it were not for the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, but I’m glad I did. I have observed several other novels in this trope, but I’m glad I haven’t actually read too many of them, so it didn’t feel tired to me. Imogen Hermes Gowar obviously researched the time period thoroughly, and she does well with the world building. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is an engaging and intriguing novel that I can just see being made into a BBC drama – no lack of visual and atmospheric details! I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction of this type will love it.
Published in 2018 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin. My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.