Hello dear readers! Time to share my thoughts about my latest read! This was kind of an impulse buy. Heard about it on Instagram (probably) and was intrigued by the plot and impressed by the praise, so I just preordered it and kind of forgot about it. When it appeared on my doorstep I was utterly delighted. This book is gorgeous (when naked that is to say, not a huge fan of the dust jacket).
When I started it, I was prepared for a fast paced piece of fantasy, where mermaids would display their seductive power in all their mightiness. Where magic and danger would be found at every corner, or almost. But nope.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is far subtler than that. It tells the story of a widowed merchant whose life is shaken when the captain of one of his boats reappears after having been MIA for some time, without the boat, but with an horrendous creature he claims to be a mermaid, which he has exchanged the boat with. Discomfited at first (as any reasonable man would be), Mr. Hancock resolves to follow his captain’s advice and try to make the most of this peculiar situation, by displaying the creature as a curiosity, for people to marvel and wonder at. Or to be scared of. This new business venture will lead him to uncharted high-society territories and he will notably cross paths with an experienced yet quite deposed courtesan, which may be something like a mermaid herself.
“And all of a sudden, in his silent counting-house, this faded man with his brow cupped in his hands is gripped by a great childish glee of anticipation.”
In this historical fiction firmly grounded in the reality of the late 18th century in England, Gowar takes her time to set the context and restitute the environment, and even the language rings true, not anachronic at all. Different scenes are painted, where various characters evolve, in quite parallel universes. They are not much related and the contrast between the worlds they live in is quite strikingly rendered. The present time narration adds to the sensation of immediateness, the jerky rhythm, it is really a succession of life scenes depiction. It was actually a bit unsettling to me at the beginning.
And then these different trajectories collide and the normal way of life derails. I won’t say much about the plot. But let me talk about the atmosphere. It is immersive really, this back and forth movement between different parts of the city. The writing is slow, elegant and precise, interwoven with mysterious mermaid monologues. I did not really take time to decipher them as I grew more attached to the colourful characters of the novel : the dull yet touching in his clumsiness Jonah Hancock, the futile and helpless Angelica, the hardworking niece, the cunning and seemingly loyal servant and friend, the witty pimp and a whole gallery of whores, all looking for a freedom and accomplishment of sort. The women and girls here are particularly strong-willed and eloquent.
“Everything about her is sullied–her beauty too effusive, all there for any body to look upon. Nothing about her is secret or private : he sees that she is a bauble for old men’s pleasure, nothing more.”
I quietly read, cradled by the distant waves’ lapping, while half-listening to the faint whisper of the faraway mermaids. In the middle of this however, there are some abrupt changes of minds and life directions that may seem a bit artificial after the slow portrayal of the characters and the careful building of the context. Still, the evolution of the main characters make sense. Overall, their journey from insatisfaction and lack of self-accomplishment to quiet settlement is touching and plausible.
“Our breath is the heave and pull of the sea on a black night, which rocks the sparks of moonlight in its ripples.”
As for the mermaid, at the beginning she serves more as a pretext to bring very different characters together than as a character of her own. In the end however, the figure of the mermaid gains significance of its own, impersonating loss and grief, the longing for freedom and for something else, a quest for an impossible epiphany that devours the present.
“A loss is not a void. A loss is a presence all its own, a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other things that lives.”
The real force of Gowar here is to craft a quite ordinary love story in a way that makes it unforgettable. By adding the mermaid to her universe, she reinforces the melancholy that inhabits it, and the feeling of eternal insatisfaction and confinement that plagues its inhabitants. The mermaid’s powerful appeal helps creating a mysterious, sometimes gloomy atmosphere, marked by loss, longing and desire. The mermaid is above all a catalyst. For the characters to meet, but also to open their eyes to what life can offers when freed from chintzy desires and devouring obsessions.
“And if I am made of grief, well! Here is joy, and if I am made of fury, here is peace.”
Conclusion: A well written and multi-layered novel, a quiet gem, a very special reading experience. The story is a bit meandering and some plot ends are not fully tied, but the exquisite language and enthralling atmosphere are worth the read. As for my interpretation of it, it may be quite different from what other readers experienced. I think there is a very rich symbolic that can be extracted from it.