A perilous catch
NICK RENNISON is impressed by a debut novel that tells a curious tale of life in Georgian-era London
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar Harvill Secker £12.99
Jonah Hancock is not your typical protagonist. A portly middleaged Deptford widower, he lives alone with a niece who acts as his housekeeper. Decent but a little dull, he is an archetypal member of the 18th-century mercantile class. Nothing of any great note has ever happened to him and he has done nothing to disturb the smooth running of his comfortable life. All that is about to change, as debut novelist Imogen Hermes Gowar leads him on an unpredictable adventure through the streets of Georgian London.
Hancock’s old friend and business associate, Captain Tysoe Jones, returns from a trading voyage with startling news. He has sold Hancock’s ship and invested the money in a rare curio – the preserved body of a mermaid. Hancock is horrified but the captain assures him that a fortune is to be made from showing the mermaid to Londoners eager to see any novelty. As Hancock’s mermaid soon becomes the talk of the town, he begins to move in very different circles.
A corpulent madam, owner of a brothel in St James’s, hires the mermaid to be a talking point at one of her sex parties. Hancock attends and, although he is shocked by what he witnesses, he meets Angelica Neal, a high-class courtesan. Self-centred and frivolous, yet admirably determined to maintain her independence, she embarks on an affair with a handsome but debt-ridden young man which soon looks doomed to disaster. Meanwhile the dazzled Jonah Hancock is lurking in the wings, ready to offer Angelica what comfort he can. The lives of both merchant and courtesan will be radically transformed by their meeting.
Rich in the details of everyday life, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a highly impressive debut. The dramatic alterations in its characters’ fortunes may not always be entirely convincing, but it is an absorbing tale of sex, money, ambition and the lure of the new.