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

First I sink,
Then I trickle,
Then I rush.
I am here; and here; and here. I touch this surface and also that.
I mingle, I quiver with a thousand voices, and all these voices my own. I am a great tumble of motion which torrents all in unison.
And learning and knowing are the same, and I am a mite, and we are all the space allowed to us.
And if I am made of grief, well! Here is joy, and if I am made a fury, here is peace. Rush, rush, we rush, a sparkling stream through rock and moss, deep in the cold stone of the earth. No daylight here, no dying breaths to catch up. We rush young and bright, and ever-widening, and these bitter atoms are lost in new-minted freshness. We hasten, hasten, onward to the boundless sea.

Written with exceptional beauty The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a spellbinding and lustful story of one man and the women that captivate him. With the sumptuous details of the 18th century, caught between frivolity and purity, we come to know the unique life afforded to those ‘fallen women’ who find themselves, by circumstance or choice, under the care of a madame and writhing under the bodies of men. And too we learn of the strive and hustle of the middle class gentleman as they seek to ascend the ladder of success into the wealth and status of the upper echelons.

Mr Hancock is not a whimsical man but he has never been able to shake the notion that, the moment his wife laid her head back on her childbed pillow and sighed her last wretched breath, his life diverged from its proper course. It seems to him that the one he ought to have had continues very nearby, with only a thin bit of air and chance separating him from it, and every now and then he catches a glimpse of it as if a curtain has momentarily fluttered aside.

Mr. Hancock is a solitary and plain widower who is comforted by his counting house and his work as a shipsman and trader. Now quite alone he has taken to mistaking a slight draft for the ghost of his dead infant son, and, as a result, sunken into a degree of melancholy. However, when his ship returns and its capitan delivers the most curious item Mr. Hancock, though doubtful at first, begins to see possibility.

Captain Jones eases the canvas away, and at first they cannot think what it is they see. For it is brown and wizened like an apple forgotten at the bottom of the barrel, or like the long-dead rats Mr. Hancock once found bricked up in the kitchen wall, parched and cured by the elements, skin that crackled under the pressure of a thumb. It is a size of an infant, and like an infant its rib cage is delicate and pathetic beneath its parchment skin, and its head is large, and its fists are drawn up to its face. But this is as far as the comparison maybe extended. For no infant has such fearful claws and no infant such a snarl, with such sharp fangs in it. And no infant’s torso ends in the tail of a fish.

Desiccated and ugly though it is, Mr. Hancock now finds himself in the possession of a genuine mermaid. Unsure of its use, it takes the intervention of one women, the madame of a great whorehouse-who is accustomed to uplifting the downtrodden, to show Mr. Hancock the very place in society for a mermaid and her keeper. But this place is far beyond what Mr. Hancock could ever imagine and when he is faced directly with the brazen sexuality and grand sensuality of the London brothel’s, he sees not desire and satisfaction but lewdness and sin. Enter Angelica Neal, celebrated courtesan tasked with reigning in Mr. Hancock and securing his prized mermaid.

Her career in coitus has not, in short, been a perfect round of pleasure on her part. But mark you, whatever small disappointment or boredom or terror she might experience during the act is more than eclipsed by all the attendant enjoyments of her profession. Whoredom appeals to Angelica’s character in a great host of ways: she likes to live closely with other women and share her secrets with them; she likes to sing and drink and dance; she likes to be cosseted; she likes to be looked at. What she likes best of all is to be desired.

At the height of her pleasurable reign, Angelica does not take this task very seriously and quickly abandons the prude Mr. Hancock for a more immediately satisfying morsel. Hoping to emulate the status of her good friend, Angelica seeks a keeper with endless finance to support her lavish fancies. For a time her desires are met, but when reality comes crashing through, she is left to scrape together what she can to avoid homelessness or worse. Meanwhile, Mr. Hancock has become something more than a lonely killjoy and thus our two stories converge.

Through the mishaps of a renowned harlot and the strive of a miserly widow we are fully immersed in the world of 18th century London and the conflicting sensibilities of the time. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a rich and atmospheric debut that delves into society’s contradictory view of femininity and the relentless battleground that is female autonomy. And as the story builds, it also becomes a tale of love, of revival and of fulfillment.  cropped-blog-logo.png

A review copy of this title was provided by Harper Books

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