I do love historical fiction and this is one of the best I’ve read for a while! Intricately plotted, rigourously researched and with vivid and well-drawn characters. And none of those elements displaced by any other. And with just a touch of magical realism thrown in. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Hilary Mantel – but that’s a huge height to reach!
The novel really has only two characters: Mr Jonah Hancock, the workaday, somewhat pedestrian and timid, merchant; and Angelica Neal, a self-absorbed and superficial courtesan. Neither character is particularly likeable in their own right and yet, somehow, Gowar made me care for them. The other secondary characters were distinctly secondary but still fleshed out: Sukie, Jonah Hancock’s niece, was probably the closest to a likeable character and her growth from little more than a housekeeper to de facto mistress of the house was a pleasure; Miss Frost, living with Angelica Neal as something between a friend, a housekeeper, a seamstress and a bawd; and Mrs Chappell, the grotesquely painted suppurating bawd, both morally and physically corrupt.
The mermaid of the title – in Part One at least – lamds in Mr Hancock’s hands unexpectedly and is a twisted and hideous goblin-like beast.
It is the size of an infant and, like an infant, it’s ribcage is delicate and pathetic beneath its parchment skin…. [But] no infant has such fearful claws, and no infant such a snarl, with such sharp fangs in it. And no infant’s torso ends in the tail of a fish.
It is something which might be seen in a museum of antique oddities – which is perhaps unsurprising as Gowar had a background in Archeology and Anthropology and History. It’s a physical and tangible thing – unlike the more alien creature discovered in Part 3.
Through various machinations, Mr Hancock allows Mrs Chappell to display the mermaid and Angelica Neal is tasked with keeping him happy.
The tenderest parts of the novel occur when Mr Hancock wins an audience with Mrs Neal and their conversation becomes humane and real and genuine – much to their own surprise.
The book is not without its visceral moments and it’s horrors, mainly in Part 3. Personally, I wonder whether Parts 1 and 2 could not have been trimmed down a little and perhaps Part 3 extended. My biggest gripe with the novel was the final conclusion: it seemed a little too neat and unnecessarily positive.
Publisher: Harville Secker
Date: 25th January 2018