Book Review – ‘The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock’ – by Imogen Hermes Gowar ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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This voyage is special. It will change everything…..

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door.  One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr. Hancock’s marvel.  It’s arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on…and a courtesan of great accomplishment.  This chance meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, a journey on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost….

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

In this spellbinding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.

I started this book full of excitement. I was reading this as my first buddy read with @remembery_tree_reads and @cozyreadbox (their Instagram handles) I love mermaids, and the description sounded like something I’d enjoy. The book itself is exquisite and opening it up to find it looked authentically like a very old book sealed the fact that I was judging this book by it’s cover. But would it live up to my expectations?

Mercer Jonah Hancock’s life is changed forever the night he is disturbed by urgent knocking at the front door and finds one of his ships’ captains there informing him he sold his ship for a “mermaid”.  Jonah is incensed at the money this impetuous frivolity has cost him. But word soon spreads, and with everyone now vying to see his marvel he decides to show the creature at a coffee house. A move that makes his fortunes turn. His life is changed again when high society bawd Mrs.Chappell offers a large sum of money to display the mermaid at her establishment. She throws a lavish party to celebrate and it is there that Jonah meets Angelica Neal, a beautiful courtesan and former protogée of Mrs. Chappell, with whom he is instantly smitten. When Anglica requsts a mermaid of her own Jonah doesn’t hesitate to send out a crew to find and procure what she desires, neither of them knowing that this will have far reaching repercussions for them both and change their lives again in unimaginable ways.

From the start I loved the way this book was written. It is enchanting, beautiful and lyrical, with such attention to detail it no surprise to learn the many years the author had studied the time period in which is was set, worked in a Museum, and that this book started off as her dissertation for her MA in Creative Writing. She brought Georgian London to life with a vivid realism thanks to attention to the most minute and unusual details. Being a story that featured brothels and courtesans there is also some sensuous and erotic storytelling that was at times a little shocking. Many social issues of the time period were highlighted in this book: the hypocrisy, abuses of power, the vulnerability and ownership of women, and how unsteady and unstable someone’s position in that society could be. It was interesting to learn what was viewed as acceptable or proper at the time and the very different expectations and ambitions that existed.

The book was separated into three volumes and at the end of the first volume I was at a loss as to where the story was going and had found the story had got off to a slow start. At that point I thought the characters were interesting and well written, but I didn’t like either of the main characters and preferred a number of the secondary ones, although unusually this didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book. Volume two was my favourite as the pace of the story picked up and  captivated me. It was also where we got to know and understand Jonah and Angelica and began to feel an attachment to them, become invested in their fates and how their story was unfolding. The third volume did a good job of concluding their story but I did think some things were left unfinished and could have been explored further.

One of the things I was most looking forward to about this novel was the mermaid, who was an enigmatic, elusive, haunting and mystifying creature. There were chapters dedicated to her and her magic and mystery was woven throughout them. I read this book with a belief that mermaids exist. The author writes it so that you don’t question that mermaids can be found amongst the seals in our seas and could be captured by a fisherman.

I started read this book anticipating one of wonder, elegance and mystery.  While there were all these things throughout the thoroughly researched and complex story, it’s slow start meant that it didn’t take my breath away and amaze me the way I was hoping. Nevertheless, this book was still a witty, detailed, beautifully written piece of historical fiction that I would recommend.

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