EX­PECT A STING IN THIS TALE

Sunday Times - - Review - Anna Stroud @an­nawriter_

The Mer­maid and Mrs Han­cock

★★★★★

Imo­gen Her­mes Gowar Harvill Secker, R290

Late one evening in 1785, mer­chant Mr Jonah Han­cock awakes to a knock on the door. His ship has come in and de­liv­ered to him the most pe­cu­liar thing — a mer­maid! The world’s cu­rios­ity in his crea­ture thrusts him away from his mod­est coun­try liv­ing into high-so­ci­ety Lon­don where he meets An­gel­ica Neal, a daz­zling woman of great beauty and a cel­e­brated whore.

Nei­ther Mr Han­cock nor Miss Neal are pre­pared for the treach­er­ous road that lies ahead, for mer­maids are dan­ger­ous and mys­te­ri­ous crea­tures and although they bring good for­tune, they ex­act pay­ment in the harsh­est of terms.

The char­ac­ters are splen­did and orig­i­nal: there’s tight-lipped Mrs Frost — the keeper of books, se­crets and virtue; mon­strous Mrs Chappell — an “abbess” who runs a “nun­nery” for fallen girls; and, of course, the tit­u­lar mer­maid, who turns the tide of ev­ery­one’s for­tune one way or an­other.

The men are vastly out­num­bered and out­classed by the women in the story: An­gel­ica charms all who dare to look upon her per­son; Mr Han­cock’s niece Sukie main­tains his house­hold and keeps a crit­i­cal eye on af­fairs; and Mrs Chappell swirls around with her en­tourage — Polly, Eli­nor and young Kitty — through the glam­orous un­der­belly of Lon­don.

The Mer­maid and Mrs Han­cock flashes with crisp lan­guage and sparkling wit. Ef­fort­less and be­guil­ing; as An­gel­ica glides from par­lour to bed­cham­ber and the mer­maid glim­mers through waves of con­scious­ness, so lan­guage weaves through the story like fine thread on an elab­o­rate corset.

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