There is always a fear that an author’s second novel will not live up to the first. I was very impressed with Essie Fox’s debut, The Somnambulist, and have been eagerly awaiting the next. I should not have worried. Elijah’s Mermaid is even better.
Lily and Elijah Lamb are twins, adopted from The London Foundling Hospital by August Lamb, a celebrated author and their grandfather. His son, their father, died in London, and August still mourns him. They do not know who their mother was. When Elijah shows a talent for art and later, photography, he is persuaded by a friend of the family, their grandfather’s publisher, whom they call Uncle Freddie, to work for the celebrated artist, Osborne Black as his apprentice.
Another London orphan, a girl called Pearl, has a less fortunate early life. She is rescued as a baby from the Thames by a thoroughly despicable pimp of a brothel owner and, once of age, is sold to Osborne Black. Before this happens, Elijah sees her from a distance and falls in love with her. Meanwhile, obsessed by her beauty and also by mermaids, Osborne Black paints her constantly and when his obsession and control spirals into madness, he has her locked up in a lunatic asylum.
The author captures the essence of Victorian life in this richly textured novel. You name it, it’s there: a web of interconnected lives, sensational melodrama, sexuality and sanctity, pornography and child exploitation. In the wrong hands, it could have been a thin pastiche or a ‘modern’ take on Dickens. However, the author has created a hugely enjoyable novel that constantly trips you up when you think you know what’s coming. If you love all things Victorian, you will love this.