Summary and book reviews of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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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  • Published:
    Sep 2018, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Meara Conner
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About this Book

Book Summary

In 1780s London, a prosperous merchant finds his quiet life upended when he unexpectedly receives a most unusual creature - and meets a most extraordinary woman - in this much-lauded, atmospheric debut that examines our capacity for wonder, obsession, and desire with all the magnetism, originality, and literary magic of The Essex Serpent.

One September evening in 1785, Jonah Hancock hears an urgent knocking on his front door near the docks of London. The captain of one of Jonah's trading vessels is waiting eagerly on the front step, bearing shocking news. On a voyage to the Far East, he sold Jonah's ship for something rare and far more precious: a mermaid. Jonah is stunned - the object the captain presents him is brown and wizened, as small as an infant, with vicious teeth and claws, and a torso that ends in the tail of a fish. It is also dead.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlors and brothels, all of London is curious to see this marvel in Jonah Hancock's possession. Thrust from his ordinary existence, somber Jonah finds himself moving from the city's seedy underbelly to the finest drawing rooms of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of the coquettish Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on - and a shrewd courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting sparks a perilous liaison that steers both their lives onto a dangerous new course as they come to realize that priceless things often come at the greatest cost.

Imogen Hermes Gowar, Britain's most-heralded new literary talent, makes her debut with this spellbinding novel of a merchant, a mermaid, and a madam - an unforgettable confection that explores obsession, wonder, and the deepest desires of the heart with bawdy wit, intrigue, and a touch of magic.

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is the debut novel from brilliant new literary talent Imogen Hermes Gowar, exploring the ways in which those disadvantaged by race, gender, and class in 18th century London attempted to build better lives for themselves. From the very first page, the novel oozes style and finesse.   (Reviewed by Meara Conner).

Full Review Members Only (604 words).

Media Reviews

Vogue (UK)
Fascinating and funny, this is undoubtedly the start of a major career for this young writer.

The Times (UK)
Superb…. A cracking historical novel… by turns intriguing, touching, funny, sad and heartwarming…. The cast of endlessly engaging characters will keep you turning the pages until you get to the wholly satisfying ending…. The novel immerses you in a world in a way that reminds me of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

The Sunday Times (UK)
A swift, rollicking read…. Richly descriptive…. Like the recent historical-fiction hits Francis Spufford's Golden Hill, Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, and Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, this is a novel pungent in historical detail.

Financial Times (UK)
A gripping… study of the intertwined lives of sex workers and high society in Georgian London…[Themes] of independence, love, class, death and gender stereotypes are skillfully explored here through a late 18th-century lens.

The Guardian (UK)
There is much to chew on here, and much to savour, presented with wit and showmanship…. The elan of this book is female, from the madams running their girls, to the book's most obvious literary forebear, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. Imogen Hermes Gowar is the real deal.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This is, indeed, a kind of fairy tale, one whose splendid combination of myth and reality testifies to Gowar's imagination and talent.

Booklist
Starred Review. Concerned with the issue of women's freedom, Gowar offers a panoramic view of Georgian society, from its coffeehouses and street life to class distinctions and multicultural populace. Recommended for fans of Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist (2014), this is a sumptuous historical feast.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. An ambitious debut with enough romance, intrigue, and social climbing to fill a mermaid's grotto to the brim.

The Irish Times
Historical fiction at its finest, combining myth and legend with the brutal realities of the past, chief among them the mistreatment of women and black people and the inequality that existed among the classes. Comparisons will be drawn to the works of contemporary authors Sarah Waters and Michael Faber… but The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has more in common with the novels of Dickens and Austen.

Author Blurb Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth is Missing and Whistle in the Dark
The richness and rhythm of the writing is irresistible.

Author Blurb Madeline Miller, author of Circe and The Song of Achilles
Wonderful… completely transporting.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Real Lives of London's 18th Century Courtesans

Kitty Fisher (1741-1767), one of 18th century London's best known courtesansAngelica Neal, one of the central protagonists in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, is a well-known, glamorous and beautiful courtesan (a high-priced prostitute or paid escort) to wealthy members of the London aristocracy. She lives a lavish lifestyle, purchasing the latest fashionable gowns, eating the most expensive treats and residing in one of the chicest neighborhoods in the city. The reality of life for most 18th century London courtesans, however, was not usually so extravagant.

Most English prostitutes of the era were born into poverty and denied virtually any opportunity for education. Their employment options were limited to low-paying jobs like seamstress or laundress, and if no such positions were available or they needed ...

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