Imogen Hermes Gowar’s Debut is a Delightful Romp through the London of 1700s
4th June, 2018
One of the best things I did over the weekend was to indulge in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. I loved every minute of it. It might come as a surprise that when ARCs of the book were being sent out, I was not so keen on acquiring one. It had all the elements that lure me – historical tale set in London, mermaids, a stunning cover; yet I said ‘No’. It didn’t seem like a novel I would enjoy when I read the blurb (in spite of having so many of my go-to-keywords). Perhaps the size of the book (always a reader who runs away from big books) had more to do with my decision. And also the fact that I was in awe of Susanna Clarke’s London in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell last year (which was huge and a pure delight) that I didn’t think another book would be able to entice me that way. But when such excellent reviews from other readers started pouring in and a climb onto the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2018 made news, I knew I had to give Imogen’s debut a try.
Best decision ever!
A widower, Mr. Hancock, realizes his livelihood is at stake when one of his captains trades away his merchant vessel in exchange for what appears to be a mermaid. The beautiful courtesan, Angelica Neal, tries to make her future secure but is on the downhill ride with nothing to hold on to. When their stories collide, so do their ambitions.
London of 1700's
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a very fitting tribute to the London scene of 1700’s. The descriptions of luxury and grandeur were perfect, as were those of the shops, brothels, parlours, gastronomic delights and furnishings. The beauty of this work lies in how her research into the time period makes subtle appearances in the little details rather than a wordy ramble to be shoved down the reader’s throat. The bawdy prostitution houses, the chamber pots, lecherous men, seductive courtesans, all add charm to the London that awaits a mermaid.
Realism vs fantasy
At times, I felt the novel to be a fitting companion read to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, even though it is rooted in magic while The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is grounded in realism. The presence of the mermaid is more of an emotional sub-current in a story rooted in realism than as a fantastical element. The story explores the destructive power that mermaids are believed to have on humans.
Imogen has created a marvellous literary delight with a rich, visual feel. Every scene is written so splendidly be it the delights of society or the grief and melancholic air that engulfs the characters behind closed doors.
The book has been compared to Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (another favourite read from 2017). I choose to disagree. While both the books have a distinct sense of atmospheric narrative, their merits are vastly different from one another as well as the experience each bestows upon the reader.
A bit shallow
Don’t get me wrong. I adored the book. The book had my attention throughout. However, I felt no attachment whatsoever to the characters in the story. I was fascinated by the sketch of Angelica though. She single handedly seemed to breathe life into the book just as the vivacious, sprightly girl she is described as in various scenes. While I appreciated the presence of minor black characters (such as Polly) who are part of the history of the 1700’s, their sketches were vague. The plot suffered greatly, perhaps because of the abundance of characters and indistinct subplots. I am unable to point out what was lacking in the characters, but they failed to move me even though I basked in the descriptions of the old London.
Final Verdict :
I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it if you have a thing for historical books, old London setting and atmospheric reads. This novel reads like an old classic, not a debut , and for this feat, Imogen deserves all the praise. Pick this up if you are in the mood for a slow, visual romp through historical London.
I am so thrilled to partner with Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2018 this year as well for an International Giveaway. If you would love to win this year’s shortlist (yes, you heard it right! All six of them), head over to my social media handles. Good luck! The shortlist has some stellar reads this year, so make sure you put in your entries before 7th June, 2018.
Pic courtesy : The Women’s Prize
Title : The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
Author : Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher : Harvill Secker
Language : English
Pages : 496
Rating : 4/5
Have you been reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2018 shortlist?