Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

This book is such a difficult one to review. The hype surrounding its release has been unreal – and after hearing the author discussing it on the radio, my expectations reached new heights.

But alas, this was unfortunately to be one of those horrible times where the book did not live up to the hype for me.

Although slow to get going, Imogen Hermes Gowar’s prose is absolutely stunning, drawing me instantly into late 18th century London. And this is not Georgian period as we know it from Jane Austen’s novels. It is as if the author has pulled back the curtain on that era of glittering glamour, unveiling its seedy underbelly. The author’s attention to historical accuracy is impressive; the extensive research put in really pays off, creating a piece of sumptuous period writing brimming with rich details of dress, food and decor.

Unfortunately, what the novel lacks for me is development, both in terms of plot and characters. The premise was promising: our main female protagonist, Angelica Neal, is a courtesan, instantly coming across as a morally grey and not entirely likeable character. On the flip side there’s Mr Jonah Hancock, a character made intriguing by the deep sense of loss in his life, and the question of what lengths he will go to in order to fill this void.

Neither of the characters, I felt, were really developed to their full potential. At a certain point in the latter half of the novel, one single thread of the plot took over and dominated the rest of the book, at the expense of any further character development. And I think it is worth mentioning that this plot point which ends up becoming dominant is one of magical realism.

I hadn’t expected magical realism upon beginning this book; perhaps foolishly, given the word “Mermaid” in the title, but I had thought this was pure historical fiction. Perhaps if I had been expecting magical realism, I would have enjoyed the end of the book more – but at the time of reading, I found it unnecessary, and felt it detracted from some of the novel’s strengths.

For me, the story meandered away to an unsatisfying conclusion, leaving many loose threads. Again, perhaps my expectations were misguided, but I had also hoped, based on Imogen Hermes Gowar’s radio discussion, to find a compelling look at how the life of a courtesan could give the opportunity for financial independence. Instead I read a story of women who were submissive and dependent on men, which was a shame.

All this being said, Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut has been received very well by critics, so if a slower novel with mystical speculation and beautiful writing is something you enjoy, then do consider giving it a go. In terms of my preferences, it was too slow and lacking in character development for me to love it.

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