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Book Review: The Mermaid & Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid & Mrs. Hancockthe mermaid and mrs hancock
Imogen Hermes Gowar

Harper, 2018
★★★★☆

I think the best way to describe The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock would be: uneven, meandering, and unbalanced, in terms of both pacing and genre. It’s almost as though it can’t quite decide what it wants to be. Somehow, it is too long and yet not long enough.

Oddly enough, a book with this kind of pacing normally wouldn’t be able to hold my attention, but I was never once bored! I think that is to do with two factors. One is my own personal interest in Georgian London as well as the history of prostitution. Harlots is one of my favorite shows. The amount of historical detail Gowar displays here is simply astonishing. It stops just shy of being too much, but because of this detail I could picture everything so, so clearly; I felt like I was inhabiting this time period.

The second factor is the strength of the characters. While normally third-person omniscient narration isn’t my style and keeps me at arm’s length, I felt like it worked here, and I got such a strong sense of the characters, particularly the women, who, really, are what hold the novel up. There are so, so many female characters here, and all of them intriguing. There is Angelica Neal, a beautiful, vain, and somewhat immature prostitute; I found her character to be endlessly fascinating. She is the sort of woman who genuinely enjoys her profession because she loves being adored; it is such a change from the usual “downtrodden whore with a heart of gold” trope.

Then there is Sukie, Mr Hancock’s niece, an intelligent and determined girl of about fourteen who lives with her uncle and assists in his daily tasks with a maturity and capability beyond her years. There is Eliza Frost, Angelica’s friend, who is either in love with her or jealous of her, or both. There is Mrs Chappell, an intrepid bawd; Bel Fortescue, an intelligent former prostitute who married into the nobility (as many prostitutes of the time period did); Elinor, Kitty, and of course Polly, a mixed-race young prostitute with aspirations of rising above her skin color, or at least being seen beyond it, and whose arc, sadly, is nowhere near as satisfying as her character is. This is one of the faults of the book; various plot lines and characters are underdeveloped.

Most readers are enamored of the writing here, but…I wasn’t a huge fan. Don’t get me wrong; the writing is lovely, but a little too stiff for me. It feels elegant and classical, in the way that an actual classic novel written in the 18th-century might sound, and I don’t tend to be a fan of that style. I found it too heavy-handed and overwrought, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, because it did suit the time period and overall setting. The writing was also funny at times, rather tongue-in-cheek, almost like it was attempting to emulate the narration style of The Crimson Petal and the White (but coming nowhere near close enough).

The conceit of the mermaid is…odd? There are actually two mermaids in this novel, and the appearance of the second one contributes to the unbalanced feeling I got from the narrative. I’m not entirely sure this second mermaid was warranted at all; it felt like a hastily tacked on plot that added a pointless fifty or so pages to a story that had already achieved closure. It also made me question the genre, because the last fifty pages veered a bit too close to magical realism, or even fantasy. It was odd, considering the very realistic and almost gritty historical bent of the rest of the book.

Overall, I think this is a deeply flawed book, one that could have used a strict structural edit, but it is a wonderful achievement all the same, and I enjoyed it very much.

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