I have to admit, the premise of this book did not initially attract me. A mermaid? In 18th century London? But the reviews were fantastic and the cover is stunning, so when I heard a publisher’s representative rave about the book, I thought I’d give it a try. I’m so glad I did!
In 1785, Mr. Hancock, a prosperous London merchant receives unexpected treasure from one of his sea captains’ voyage to Macao: the corpse of a mermaid. Unlike the mermaids in familiar myths, however, this one is n
ot pretty. It’s brown and wizened, with “fearful claws.” (There is an actual specimen in the British Museum that inspired the story: see it here.) Hancock is disturbed and perplexed by the creature, in large part because it was bought with a tremendous amount of Hancock’s money. Eventually, he comes around to the idea of showing it for profit, and soon the abbess of one of the most exclusive brothels in the city wants to display it for her clients. This connection between the two is a turning point for Hancock, though he is unaware of it, and little by little, the mermaid begins to change his solitary, regimented life.
Gowar’s prose is beautiful and flowing, with rich, detailed descriptions of London that immerse you in that place and time. Her plot moves in unexpected directions, keeping you on your toes. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a story that is wholly original and unexpected. Don’t let the “mermaid” in the title fool you: this book is not fantasy. I’d call it “quirky historical fiction,” with well-drawn characters and a sense of whimsy throughout. It’s a delightful read.