“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and — heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds — forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a hefty tome — seriously, y’all, it’s a brick — but one worth of notice by admirers of literary fiction. I went into this novel expecting something light, whimsical, flirtatious, even; instead, I was thrilled to discover a tale of dark whimsy and an extraordinarily well-researched and -written portrait of 1780s English life. Here’s the scoop:
Mr. Hancock is a middle-aged, rather unexceptional individual who runs a moderately successful acquisitions enterprise in which he oversees the purchasing and sales of various commodities. His wife is deceased, alongside their infant child; and he has long been accustomed to a dreary existence that cycles from work to dinner to bed and back again. One day, though, his captain returns with news: the ship has been sold, pennies on the dollar, in exchange for something rare and nearly unbelievable: a mermaid.
Fascinated by the macabre and unusual, as human nature dictates, Mr. Hancock suspends his anger long enough to view the creature — and is convinced it should be shown to private audiences in order to make a few shillings. Begrudgingly, Mr. Hancock agrees to lease the grotesque mermaid — it’s long dead, and a rather dried-up and gruesome-looking bit of taxidermy, by all accounts — to a whorehouse.
Yeah, you read that right. A whorehouse.
Although Mr. Hancock has some qualms about loaning his oddity to a house of ill-repute, he cannot prepare himself for the wild twists of fate the establishment will cast his way.
Here’s what I loved most: characters are deeply flawed and ripe with the most basic — and tumultuous — of human desires. A current of wanting-but-not-having sweeps the plot along until fate steps in; and then, we’re reminded of the sour plateauing sensation that comes with getting what we want most. Gowar fastidiously composes each individual in the novel to portray some of the most fundamental heartwishes of our species. Mr. Hancock longs for company, fulfillment, something greater than the rote existence he has been leading; Angelica Neal, lady of the night, wants nothing more than to be the mistress of her own ship — she’s desperate to control her own destiny and will stop at nothing to find a means to this end; Mrs. Frost seeks her own means of self-support and control.
Perhaps the most striking theme to me in the novel is the female quest for self-reliance and power: each woman featured fiercely desires to remove herself from under the thumb of whatever forces are keeping them in place. The novel may be a tale of dark whimsy, but it’s also a relentless portrait of feminism and the serach for control over fortunes and fates in a world dominated by males and monetary wealth.
Mermaid moves along at an indolent loll, and to be quite honest, not a great deal of action occurs. However! The beauty in this work is found in the artfully constructed characters and their unremarkable lives that serve as a backdrop against the constant current of power struggles. And in the end — the bitter, raw metaphor of possession and wealth as isolation and ultimately, not the bringer of joy — well, that was icing on the cake.
Overall: 4.5 stars. Read this one when you’re in the mood to appreciate some serious fiction with rich prose and a slow-moving but mysteriously mesmerizing unfolding of events.
Thanks a million to Harper Books, who sent me this book free in exchange for my honest review! All opinions are my own.