cover image The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

Imogen Hermes Gowar. Harper, $28.99 (496p) ISBN 978-0-06-285995-2

When a sedate, middle-aged London merchant falls in love with a beautiful prostitute, anything can happen—and does—in Gowar’s delightful debut set in the late 18th century. The mermaid of the title is a dubious specimen delivered to Jonah Hancock by the master of one of his ships that ply the high seas. After the creature causes a sensation in London, Angelica Neal, a gorgeous, narcissistic courtesan, is enlisted by her former mentor, Mrs. Chapell, the proprietress of a high-class brothel, to “entertain” Hancock so he’ll agree to bring his exhibit to Mrs. Chapell’s celebrated institution. Smitten and lovelorn, Hancock is rebuffed by Angelica, who is in the midst of another love affair and jokingly dares Hancock to bring her another mermaid. It’s only after she’s abandoned and left destitute by her feckless love that Angelica realizes there might be something to Hancock after all, especially since he does deliver the required second mermaid. That purported sea creature brings an element of mystery to a novel alive with wit and humor. Gowar has a marvelous gift for the felicitous phrase and for Dickensian characters (Mrs. Chappell “is built like an armchair, more upholstered than clothed”) and excels in astute social commentary, especially in descriptions of the lavish household goods, clothing, and food that money can buy—in contrast with the mean lives of the poor in Deptford, where Hancock’s shipping office is located. Angelica’s gradual perception of the shallowness of her hermetic world is counterpointed by the blossoming of Hancock’s niece, a shy 14-year-old, who comes into her own as his housekeeper. This is, indeed, a kind of fairy tale, one whose splendid combination of myth and reality testifies to Gowar’s imagination and talent. (Sept.)