As some of you may now know I’ve decided this year to make every effort to read the entire set of books which have been chosen for the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. As I’m writing this post the shortlist is yet to be announced, but I’ve been starting to pick some of my favourites to read from the longlist in preparation. I recently started my journey off with Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Both books are polar opposites, but I loved them both and I knew that I wanted something to read next that would continue this run of great books!
That’s where Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock came in. This book has had an incredible amount of buzz surrounding it and was one of the main debut novel of 2018 for Vintage publishers. I was kind enough to be sent a finished copy by them, and words will not be sufficient to describe how absolutely exquisitely designed this book is. Having now read the novel I can definitely say that the opulence and shimmering beauty of the cover is very much in tune with the plot, and I honestly think this is one of the most beautifully designed books I have on my shelves.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock initially starts on an evening in 1785. Jonah Hancock, a local merchant, is greeted with the arrival of one of his captains. The news he brings is shocking, for he has sold one of Jonah’s ships in exchange for something he believes to be much more lucrative; a mermaid. News spreads quickly about the mysterious creature, throwing Jonah out of his working existence and into the realms of the higher classes. It is here, amidst the lavish parties and celebrated wealth, that he first meets Angelica Neal. Angelica is a beauty, infamous for being a courtesan of great skill. Together each of their lives takes a completely different turn, but will they be able to escape the deadly powers of a mermaid?
A lot of what goes on in this book and what truly makes it so successful can all be found within the details, whether that’s in the plot, the characters, or the setting. It’s because of these finer details that the novel has the ability to perfectly transport and saturate us within this 18th century world. The author takes careful stock of what she wants to portray, creating a scene and then bringing it to life in front of our eyes with her words and descriptions. This is all done with a great confidence, and I always felt as if the author had taken the time to carefully research her time period, combining historical authenticity with the action of the plot to create a superbly blended piece of fiction.
It’s also these small details which enable the characterisation within this book to work so well. This is a hefty book, coming in at just under 500 pages, and I think it’s fair to say that the plot is fairly relaxed in its pacing. By giving us the time to really follow the characters through different events, as well as having that quality time to become immersed in the personalities of our main characters, we are helped massively in establishing a firm involvement with them. I think this is also helped by the split narrative which is used throughout the book, mostly in regards to the main characters of Angelica and Jonah. At the start of the novel these two central characters lead extremely different lives, and this contrast produces a really fascinating edge to the narratives. It’s almost like the ‘good guy bad guy’ scenario in which you can’t help but be drawn to both characters for differing reasons. By giving us these major characters with quite different outlooks on life we are able to thrive off a sort of tension which is created between them, even if we do not necessarily warm to certain characters from the off.
One of the themes which I found to be most central to this novel was the idea of movements, especially in all of the many different shapes it can take. One of the most obvious examples is physical movement, which the author gives us throughout as we travel to different parts of England. From the busy society of London to the smaller, trading towns; as our characters move we move alongside them, creating a rich setting and enabling us to experience lots more of the details within this historical period. Even so this never felt overwhelming, as each location or aspect of traveling is skillfully woven into the narrative, making it a natural part of the plot whilst providing a rich backdrop.
Obviously Jonah is a merchant, so movement is a critical aspect of his career. From sending out ships to distant countries and selling on goods to different people and places; Jonah’s life relies on the ability to trade and travel simultaneously. It’s interesting to consider that what changes his life irrevocably is the capture of a creature which is in part always on the move, and something which is undeniable a part of the ocean which bridges the gaps between the countries he trades with. It is this mermaid which allows Jonah to make use of another type of movement; social mobility. Throughout the novel we are given a really interesting exploration of whether someone really can escape their previous social circumstances and move further up the hierarchy. Jonah’s wealth increases dramatically and he has the wealth and power to move within the same social circles as the traditional upper class families, yet is he ever really excepted? People want his wealth and the opportunities he can now create, but do they ever really except him as one of their own?
The same can be said of Angelica, for although at times she is able to create a better position for herself within society, many people are still restricted by what they see as the rules of society, meaning they can never let her truly become one of them. This leads on to the utter hypocrisy which is highlighted within this novel time and time again, specifically with regards to gender. As is made aware to us from the start of the novel Angelica is a courtesan, or essentially what can be seen as a high class prostitute who works within very wealthy circles, often becoming somebody’s kept mistress for a lengthy period of time. Whilst other women are shamed by what Angelica does and horrified by the company she keeps, the husband of these very same women are often the key partners in Angelica’s activities. The combination of their social standing and their gender allows these men to move freely wherever they chose, often above the law and free to commit as many sins as possible. Angelica on the other hand is seen as the scandal of society for doing the very same thing, restricted by her femininity and her social class. Although she may be given the capital to live luxuriously, for a very long time many of the women refuse to see Angelica as anything other than a fallen woman.
Social critique aside, the exploration of high class prostitution was a very entertaining aspect of this novel. The author takes quite an original look at this trade, as normally books tend to focus more on the destitute women who are forced into this profession through poverty or crime. Here however, with sin is taking place within the upper clases, with many of these courtesan women being seen as quite in control of themselves. Many of them, like Angelica, seem to have the power to say no in certain circumstances, and are even kept in small luxuries by their bawd (a woman who runs a brothel). The shocking and often highly comedic scenes which we are met with clash brilliantly with what you would expect of refined society, and I think it shows really well that your class or wealth does not define you as a well bred and likeable person.
As I’ve highlighted, a vast majority of this novel can be seen as an exploration of social and gender expectations. Whilst these are of course interesting topics to consider which increase the authenticity of this historical novel, the plot is equally as enjoyable in its own right. I think its important to note that the book doesn’t necessarily focus specifically on the mermaid itself. I think its much more reasonable to say that the mermaid, or creature, acts much more as a catalyst for the events of the novel, giving us a vibrant opening and bridging together the rest of the novel with its conclusion. Even if the mermaid is simply a device to get the plot underway and doesn’t feature heavily, it’s absence at times almost makes it more of an overwhelming presence. This is supported by the short pages spread throughout the novel which seem to be the thoughts of the mermaid being held in captivity. It creates a strange and mysterious edge to the historical facts, adding in a subtle edge of magical realism which is enough to set the mind wondering.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I think it is extremely deserving of its place in the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The author has a unique ability to merge history and fiction together, creating a vibrant novel which steadily comes to life before us. The characterisation throughout is superb and you truly feel as though you understand the people within this unique story. I also really enjoyed the refreshing twist the author has taken on the novel, moving us away from the stereotypical fairytales types of mermaids and giving us an almost insubstantial creature which is neither real nor false. All in all, a brilliant novel which toes the line between historical realism and fantastical ambiguity!
Publisher: Harville Secker (Vintage)
Dislaimer – I was very kindly sent a copy of this upon request. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.