With its intriguing title and beautiful cover, I found myself drawn to this tale of an 18th century merchant the wrong side of fifty who finds himself in possession of a mermaid and unexpectedly falls in love with a celebrated courtesan. I couldn’t see how all the dots would quite be connected and I don’t normally find the Georgian period of much interest, but the writing was good and the premise too quirky to resist, so in I plunged, and I’m so glad I did! I found it charming and unexpectedly moving, and though there were elements that I felt didn’t quite work, it’s a wonderful debut from someone who clearly has a fantastic imagination, and I’m already looking forward to what she might write next.
The story opens with Jonah Hancock, a prosperous middle-aged merchant, waiting for the news of the whereabouts of one of his ships, which he is expecting to dock with valuable cargo any day soon. He lives in a respectable house in the bustling wharf-side district of Deptford, but he is lonely with only his pert young niece Sukie, who keeps house for him, for company. Indeed, his house is haunted by the ghosts of his long-dead wife and son, whose absence is a growing sadness for him as his years advance with nothing to look forward to, or hope for. He may have a comfortable home and full coffers, but life offers him little of pleasure or excitement, and he has become weary of the somewhat colourless monotony of his existence. So, when the captain of his ship comes knocking in the dead of night with the news that he sold the entire ship’s cargo for a mermaid, Jonah finally has the opportunity to break out of the rut his life has fallen into. Against the advice of others, who think him mad, he arranges to put the shrivelled, gruesome body of the gremlin-like mermaid on display in a local coffee shop, to try and make the money back from his lost cargo in entrance fees. He soon proves all the nay-sayers wrong by drawing huge crowds, and becoming the talk of all London society, from street urchins to royalty. But the mermaid’s biggest fan is the madam of London’s most high class brothel, and when she asks to be loaned the mermaid to host her own party, little does Jonah know that he is about to fall head-over-heels in love with her most famous courtesan, the beautiful and brazen Angelica Neal.
Angelica has reluctantly re-entered the brothel after the death of the aristocrat who had been keeping her as his mistress for several years. Nearing her thirtieth birthday, she is past her prime, and starting to fear for her future. Many of the other girls of her generation have settled down, and though she is adamant such a life is not for her, secretly she longs for the security of marriage, and a home of her own. She thinks nothing of the – to her – elderly and unattractive Jonah Hancock when she meets him at the mermaid party, but when she jokingly tells him that she’ll be his if he brings her another mermaid, Jonah takes the command seriously. He has found himself obsessed by this woman, whose charms have reawakened feelings he had suppressed for years. But Angelica is now ensconced in the arms of a rakish young man-about-town, and couldn’t be less interested in Jonah. Thinking if he can find another mermaid, he will be able to secure Angelica for himself, he prepares to risk everything he has to get her what she desires. But will it ultimately be worth the sacrifices he must make, and will Angelica really want what she has demanded?
The coming together of the worlds of Jonah and Angelica is very well done, as is the conceit of the mermaid, which, within the world of the novel, is entirely realistic and not fantastic in the slightest. It’s clearly meticulously researched, and 18th century London in all its glitz and debauchery comes thrillingly alive off the pages. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and Hermes Gowar makes a very good attempt at realistic-sounding 18th century speech. My only criticism is that it does rather sag in the middle and there are some characters that feel unnecessary; slightly more judicious pruning by an editor would have served the novel well and made it a much pacier read. That aside, it’s still an excellent book, full of fun and good humour as well as being a thoughtful and touching exploration of the pain and insecurity that often lie hidden beneath the surface of our lives. I really enjoyed it, and highly recommend you giving it a go!