Excerpt from The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar X
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 10, 2019, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Meara Conner
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One
September 1785

Jonah Hancock's counting-house is built wedge-shaped and coffered like a ship's cabin, whitewashed walls and black skirting, beam pegged snugly to beam. The wind sings down Union Street, raindrops burst against the windowpane, and Mr Hancock leans forward on his elbows, cradling his brow in his hands. Rasping his fingers over his scalp, he discovers a crest of coarse hair the barber has missed, and idles over it with mild curiosity but no irritation. In private, Mr Hancock is not much concerned with his appearance; in society, he wears a wig.

He is a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian and linen, honest familiar textures to match his threadbare scalp, the silverish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips. He is not a handsome man, nor ever was one (and as he perches on his stool his great belly and skinny legs give him the look of a rat up a post), but his meaty face is amiable, and his small eyes with their pale lashes are clear and trusting. He is a man well designed for his station in the world: a merchant son of a merchant's son – a son of Deptford – whose place is not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth, scratch down their names and numbers, and send them on to the bright and exuberant city across the river. The ships he sends out into the world – the Eagle, the Calliope, the Lorenzo – cross and re-cross the globe, but Jonah Hancock himself, the stillest of men, falls asleep each night in the room in which he first drew breath.

The light in the office has a murky cast to it, full of storms. The rain comes down in sheets. Mr Hancock's ledgers are spread out before him, creeping with insect words and figures, but his mind is not on his work, and he is grateful for the distraction of a scuffling outside the office.

Ah, thinks Mr Hancock, that will be Henry, but when he turns around from his desk it is only the cat. She is almost upside down at the foot of the stairs, with her rear in the air, her hind paws splayed wide on the bottom step, and her forepaws pinning a squirming mouse to the hall floorboards. Her little mouth is open, teeth flashing in triumph, but her position is precarious. To right herself, he calculates, she must let go of her quarry.

'Whisht!' says Mr Hancock. 'Begone!' but she catches the mouse up in her jaws and prances across the hall. She is out of his sight, but he hears the thrum of her dancing paws and the dampish thud of the mouse's body hitting the floorboards as she flips it into the air again and again. He has watched her play this game many times, and always finds her enquiring, open-throated cry unpleasantly human.

He turns back to his desk, shaking his head. He could have sworn it was Henry coming down the stairs. In his mind's eye the scene has already taken place: his tall thin son, with white stockings and brown curls, pausing to grin into the office while all about him the dust motes sparkle. Such visions do not come to him very often, but when they do they always disturb him, for Henry Hancock died at birth.

Mr Hancock is not a whimsical man but he has never been able to shake the notion that, the moment his wife laid her head back on her childbed pillow and sighed her last wretched breath, his life diverged from its proper course. It seems to him that the one he ought to have had continues very nearby, with only a thin bit of air and chance separating him from it, and every now and then he catches a glimpse of it as if a curtain has momentarily fluttered aside. In the first year of his viduity, for example, he once felt a warm human pressure against his knee during a card game, and looked down in fond expectation of a stout little child hauling itself to its feet beside his chair. Why was he so appalled to discover instead the left hand of Moll Rennie creeping along his thigh? on another occasion, a brightly painted toy drum caught his eye at a fair, and he had carried it nearly halfway home before he remembered that no small boy was there to receive it. Fifteen years have now passed, but in rare unguarded moments Mr Hancock might hear a voice carried in from the street, or feel some tugging at his clothes, and his immediate thought is Henry, as if he had had a son all along.

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Excerpted from The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Copyright © 2018 by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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