Monday 15 January 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Book review by Greenacre Writer Mumpuni Murniati

Jonah Hancock has lived a merchant’s life. From his wedge-shaped counting-house in Deptford he sends vessels to the Far East that return with valuable commodities. He continues in the tradition of bringing fortunes from the investments his father and his grandfather built. He knows no other way. In autumn 1785, one thing makes him anxious: for eighteen months there has been no news of The Calliope. Nor does he receive any communications from the ship’s captain. Until on a stormy night Captain Jones knocks on his door bringing in the most peculiar creature the merchant has ever seen.   

Somewhere a tide is turning. In that place where no land can be seen, where horizon to horizon is spanned by shifting twinkling faithless water, a wave humps its back and turns over with a sigh, and sends its salted whispering to Mr Hancock’s ear.

This voyage is special, the whisper says, a strange fluttering in his heart. 

It will change everything. 

Sitting at her dressing table, Angelica Neal stares at her reflection in the mirror. After three years with her patron and following his death, her ‘term of employment’ has ended. What’s more, he seems to have forgotten her in his will. The high-class courtesan is pondering over her options; her money is dwindling and yet there is also a new sense of freedom whereby no man has claim to her body but her. Either she is to return to Elizabeth Chappell’s Temple of Venus or hasten to seek another patron. This time, however, she wishes for a lover and dreams of marriage.

In Eighteenth Century London, Hancock and Neal would have brushed past each other on the streets. One a widower and childless, a man who knows money but does not spend it in the embrace of women. The other carries on an ‘adventurous’ life in the embrace of men and values them by how much they would spend on her. In a nutshell, their worlds are like two blinds that stand parallel. Nevertheless, Imogen Hermes Gowar believes they should meet. 

Coined as Vintage’s Lead Debut for 2018, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock spins a bewitching narrative with a fairy tale thrown in. Based on a classic legend sung in various rhymes by seafarers and in the dreams of explorers, it’s something familiar to everyone but a kind of tale that might have been unheard of before.  

Imogen yarns the plot that entices readers to regard a period of time years before Andersen’s Little Mermaid was published but some time after the tales of the Mermaid of Amboina reached the ears of Tsar Peter The Great and George III of England.

It might have surprised Imogen that there hasn’t been a mermaid character in English fairy tales, but the public have an insatiable curiosity of the mysterious embodiment. And so it goes: how about a London mermaid - her own very tale?

‘But what am I to do with it?’

‘Why, exhibit it!’

‘I am not a showman,’ says Mr Hancock primly. ‘I shall notify the Royal Society. This must be an important development for science, and I am not a scientific man either.’

Captain Jones waves his hand in disgust. ‘And then how will you recoup your cost? Listen, ‘tis common sense. Find a coffee-house, charge a shilling per view, and say three hundred view it in a day – I am being conservative- why that s ninety pounds in a week. ‘You might tour the country with it. Take it to fairs. The provinces’ appetite for such things has never been quenched.’

‘Ninety a week, though?’ wonders Mr Hancock.                    

Mermaid for profit. A dead mermaid for hire. Imogen might have had this idea after she set eyes on a mermaid taxidermy at the British Museum where she used to work. The idea of hiring a place to display a curio, let alone artefacts in designated premises might possibly be far-fetched. Through her depictions Imogen is inviting us to foresee particular circumstances wearing different thinking hats. 

Imogen is painstaking in her details. Her fruitful labour gives birth to a new tale that is brought together because of her protagonists’ distinguished viewpoints. Her mermaid has a voice; she conjures not a prince for the immortal soul but men with attitudes; an unscrupulous abbess for a mer-grandmother and the sisterhood of the Temple of Venus’ girls to replace the Little Mermaid’s sisters. Consequently, she shies herself not from dwelling into judgment on moralities; racism and class or hypocrites and thieves. Her minor characters are assertive and audacious, seemingly strong but vulnerable people that shadow Hancock the mermaid man and Neal the courtesan and pull them in different directions.
There’s more to Imogen’s mermaid than meets the eyes; pages that oftentimes would be understood better after a second reading. Her approach in blurring the world between the mer-people and humans’ is a departure from Andersen’s firm inclination to the opposite.

In the excitements of unfolding events, however, Imogen’s subplots are ripped at the seams. In spite of flowing dialogues, she makes the audience extend their patience a little while anticipating the climax. After so much has happened, is the denouement going to be a little flat?    
‘Mr. Hancock?’ Mrs. Neal turns restlessly, and lays her face upon her arm. ‘Were you ever in love?’

He tugs his cravat. He feels that Henry has walked beside him all the day, and many hours after waking, his mind is still so distracted that the word love on the lips of a beautiful woman puts him in mind of nothing that it ought, but instead lays in his arms once more the weight of his little boy, Henry, as he cradled him that one and only morning. The child was already dead at that time, his poor blood crisping at the jag in his head that the instrument had made.

Be that as it may, Imogen is skilful at building up moments which then deliver unusual openness as the above depiction would testify. Her stitches might occasionally be imperfect, but they will hold together. More importantly, the book is far from a saga of a young mermaid giddy in love and chasing her immortal prince at all cost. After all, a happy ever after isn’t what the book has intended.  

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is published by Harvill Secker, we'd like to thank them for the review copy.

Follow Imogen on Twitter: @girlhermes

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