Beguiling. That’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imgoen Hermes Gowar. I was given it by a friend a few years back (thank you Margaret!) and I have to admit that I left it languishing on a shelf for a while as it looked a bit forbidding. Goodness was I wrong. Although it took me a little while to get into, once I did, I couldn’t leave it alone. I snuck to bed early to make sure I got a few hours of reading in; I had more than a few reading hangovers from reading too late into the night; I kept thinking of it during the day while I was doing other things – those are the magical books, aren’t they?
I’m totally in awe of this being Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut novel. Her style sweeps between Auden and Dickens and the magic realist heroes like Marquez and Allende, whilst having being original and new too. Her evocation of London life in the late 18th century; her extraordinary gift for characterisation; her courage in tackling some fascinating and difficult issues such as whether prostitution is act of female freedom or slavery; her playful questioning of whether mermaids are real; her impeccable plotting – and her beautiful, beautiful way with words, make her, in my view, one of the most talented young writers of our time. I’m surprised this hasn’t won all the prizes going. The teacher in me was immediately thinking how I would teach it too and which novels I’d pair it with.
I’m afraid that it’s a little difficult to describe what it’s about without it just sounding odd (mermaids and prostitution!), so trust me on this one – read it! And persevere through the first few pages.
Favourite quotation: ‘Men are not fearful: they build one another to greatness. Women believe their only power is in tearing one another down.’ So true. So important to remember, especially in our times.
Happy reading, friends.