The second book I have read to make it onto the shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction. I was very impressed with Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” with it making number 6 on last year’s Top 10 books. Expect this one also to be in my end of year best read countdown.
Here we have a debut novel for ex-Museum worker Imogen Hermes Gowar and with her background of archaeology, anthropology and Art History she has certainly followed the perennial advice to write about what you know and seamlessly incorporated aspects of her experience into a right rollicking novel.
Set in London of the 1780’s I had slight concerns that it might be overly twee, as perhaps implied by the title. I actually chose to read it, however, because of this title, as it brought back echoes of “The Ghost And Mrs Muir” a delightful 1947 movie starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney. This, however, is no tale of a transparent salty sea dog and actually feels closer to a modern slant on WM Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”.
It is no plot spoiler to say that for much of the novel Mrs Hancock is Angelica Neal, a high class prostitute whose protector has died leading her to face re-entry into society in order to find the next potential wealthy man who will support her. Angelica is fabulous and has to face the realisation that she might not be the attraction she once was and may end up once again in the “nunnery” of another great character, Mrs Chappell. Meanwhile, merchant Jonah Hancock is presented with a withered object, claimed to be the remains of a mermaid in compensation for a lost ship. This exhibit becomes, for a short time, the toast of London and draws the attentions of both Mrs Chappell and Angelica.
This is all done so well and Mr Hancock’s ascendancy because of his mermaid is an absolute joy to read. What is slightly less successful for me is when a little fantasy element creeps in during the final third. I know why the author does this but it doesn’t work quite as well when we lose the very real feel of eighteenth century London society with all its hypocrisies and limited attention spans cooing over Mr Hancock’s desiccated piece of exotica.
This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully. It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature. It is an extremely impressive debut.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published by Harvill Secker in 2018