The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

Written by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Review by Douglas Kemp

Too many times I have read a book, very often by a first-time published writer, that has been stratospherically praised by the media, only to be rather disappointed. This book has also received a high degree of publicity and many plaudits, and for once it is indeed fully deserved. For this is an entrancing novel that grasps the reader from the very beginning.

London in the autumn of 1785. Jonah Hancock is a trader, a widower, waiting upon the return of a prized vessel, the Calliope, to advance his wealth. He is nonplussed when its captain returns, having sold the vessel in exchange for an ugly dried sea-creature that he claims is a mermaid. Meanwhile, Angelica Neal is a high-class courtesan, whose rich benefactor, a duke, has just died, leaving her once again to find her own way in the world and rely upon her not inconsiderable beauty and charms. The reader knows that very soon in the novel (the title gives it away, mayhap) that they will meet and the outcome. Jonah and Angelica are faced with challenges and discover that sometimes you need to be careful what you seek and wish for.

Gowar’s ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect, rendering delightful and credible late 18th-century conversation. The book is also very funny at times, full of engaging, thriving characters, that the reader connects to and does not wish the book to finish, a mark indeed of a very good tale, as we wish to linger a little longer in the company of these delightful characters. The cover is a thing of beauty too.