THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Harper, September 11, 2018
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical novel set in 1780s London, follows Jonah Hancock, a merchant who finds himself in possession of a mermaid, and Angelica Neal, a courtesan whose protector has recently died. Their narratives intersect rather early on, and the novel mostly follows their relationship over a rather meandering 500 pages.
From the very first page, I wanted to love this book. I was struck instantly by Imogen Hermes Gowar’s prose, which is some of the best I think I’ve ever read in a contemporary novel. It’s poised, elegant, classical and lyrical all at once, with some of the most evocative setting descriptions I’ve ever read. Gowar brings the late 1700s to life in a way that I wouldn’t dare to minimize as I go on to discuss this novel’s flaws.
But I would be remiss not to mention that the pace and plotting were downright maddening. This is one of those books where nothing happens for 450 pages, and then everything happens in the last 50. It’s uneven, and for me, it wasn’t engaging enough to hold my attention throughout. Characters and their motivations also remained at arm’s length, with a questionable third person omniscient point of view which gave absolutely no rhyme or reason for its head hopping, following not only Jonah and Angelica, but a handful of other characters whose narratives were never fully developed. One of these characters in particular was Polly, a black courtesan whose storyline had absolutely no depth or insight or closure or anything remotely satisfying to read.
Again, I don’t want to downplay what an accomplishment Gowar’s writing is. If your main draw to a novel is rich, gorgeous prose, then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this. But if you’re looking for tight plotting and compelling characters, I can’t say that either of those is a real strength of this novel.
Thank you to Harper and Imogen Hermes Gowar for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.