BOOK REVIEW

Debut novel is a mesmerising tale

'The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock' asks: what happens when you take a courtesan or a mermaid out of her element?

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a remarkable first novel which asks the question: what happens when you take a courtesan or a mermaid out of her element?

Ah, therein lies the tale and it’s a sparkling read that will have you hooked from start to finish.

Gowar starts her story in 1785 when merchant Johan Hancock is presented with a mermaid and decides to seek his fortune by showing the curiosity to all, starting at an upmarket house of ill-repute in nearby London.

There the homely tradesman meets the alluring courtesan Angelica Neal and suddenly his view of the world opens up.

As well as a perceptive look at life in Georgian England, this also is a layered story where social issues such as freed slaves, child labour and the politics of the day creep in, unobtrusively, but in ways that are meaningful to the plot.

Then there also is the allegorical aspect of the title referring to two quite different bodies: a mythical mermaid and a high society whore.

Both, in the context of the novel, are playthings bought for the amusement of those in a position of power or money.

However, whether buffeted by the waves of the ocean or of fortune, the title characters nevertheless have hidden ways to hold sway.

Gowar studied archeology, anthropology and art history and the artefacts she worked with are apparently what inspired her to pick up her pen.

This education shows in the rich seam of domestic detail throughout The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock including the dress, food, furniture and other fascinating details.

It also makes the setting ring true in the same way that Hilary Mantel’s wonderful historical drama Wolf Hall did – adding immensely to the flavour and authenticity.

However, recreating an historical ambience is one thing and to grip the imagination of the reader with a great story is another.

You can almost feel the light touch of Angelica’s face powder settle on your skin

Fortunately, Gowar does both. She has recreated this era for the modern day reader and it is mesmerising.

You can almost feel the light touch of Angelica’s face powder settle on your skin, her muslin chemise run through your fingers, or smell the salt in the air of the wharf where Mr Hancock earns his living.

Gowar’s characters are what make the novel so memorable and not only Jonah and Angelica, but also the supporting cast of madam Chappell and her “girls”, Hancock’s niece Sukie and his sister, Angelica’s friend Mrs Frost – and many more who are written deftly and with heart.

The London-based author reportedly was paid a large advance for her book and once you have read it, you can understand why.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock cries out to be turned into one of those magnificent BBC mini-series, a la Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice.

  • The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is published by Penguin Random House and retails for around R290.
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