The first thing to say is that this is a beautifully produced book, from the sumptuous cover to the Georgian style endpapers and frontispiece. I’d read good things about the book so settled down to read with anticipation.
The story follows the 18th century fortunes of Jonah Hancock, a fusty, middle-aged merchant, long widowed and set firmly in his ways, and Angelica Neal, high-class courtesan and lover of very many men. The two move in totally different spheres until the unexpected and unlooked for acquisition of a mermaid pushes Mr Hancock out of his comfortable life and onto a path that will intersect with Angelica’s.
What struck me first and gave me most enjoyment throughout the book was the lovely use of language. From the first page the reader is plunged into the 18th century with all its sights and smells and tastes. I felt as though I was there with Jonah in his dark-panelled counting house, and could almost taste the millefruits and syllabubs in the confectioners with Angelica.
The story does unfold slowly and around halfway I wanted a few less gorgeous interiors and a bit more plot. It was as though I was eating a box of strawberry creams and started longing for a dark mint crisp. By the final third of the novel the pace picks up and I spent every spare minute reading, eager to find out how life will finally reward Mr Hancock and Angelica.
There are some very interesting side-plots, such as the position of black former slaves in England and the writer draws some clear parallels between Georgian society and our own. I would have liked more of this and more of the secondary characters whose stories were not fully resolved, such as the girls in the high-class whorehouse.
Overall, I very much enjoyed my promenade through 18th century London and would definitely pick up another volume by this author. I think this would be an excellent choice for a Readers’ Group.
Rebecca Kershaw 4/5
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Vintage 9781784705992 pbk Jan 2019