I loved this book, set in 18th century England, about a lonely merchant who comes upon a mermaid that changes his life. Gowar’s debut novel is one of those rare books you can’t possibly categorize – is it historical fiction, fantasy, romance, or just literature? I heard of this book when it was nominated and shortlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction (the former Baileys Prize). Plus it came highly recommended by fellow blogger Elle Thinks.
I went into this book with no expectations about the plot, and I really fell in love with – and was at the same time maddened by – its characters. I consider it a pretty great feat when an author can make you care so much about characters who are at times weak, selfish, and occasionally despicable. There are a lot of layers in this story, and most of them work beautifully (one that doesn’t work is noted below).
Noah Hancock is a small-town merchant who worries about his investments, cargo on ships that can sink or be captured at any time. He mourns the death of his wife and infant son years ago, but has taken no steps to bring anyone else into his life, except for his niece Sukie, who is learning to take care of his house. When a captain sells Hancock’s ship and cargo and gives him a mermaid instead, Hancock has a choice. To recoup his losses, he has to step outside his counting house – he’s too practical to understand the wonder of a mermaid, but he’s also too practical to do nothing.
In stepping outside his comfort zone he meets Angelica Neal, a courtesan who’s struggling to control her own life and is doing a pretty poor job of it. Angelica is vain, selfish, and greedy – but she’s somehow sympathetic. If her only way to make a living is off her appearance and her body, she means to make the most of what she has.
In Gowar’s first novel, she really makes you feel you’ve stepped into this time and place with her attention to detail, from food to clothing to architecture.
And yet all about them is industry. He sees printers’ apprentices with their inky fingers, blacksmiths and pie-men and builders and lawyers. Doctors bustle the streets in their cauliflower wigs; apothecaries scoop from great majolica jars; furniture salesmen sit happy behind mullioned windows. But amongst all this brave order there are those who have fallen loose from it, as screws from a fine machine. In this city of a thousand trades, there is only one that the women return to as if they were called to it.
Though Hancock is the main character, in many ways this book is a look at the lives of women in 1780’s England, where they are wholly dependent on men, whether as a prostitute, a servant, a wife, a madam, or as something freakish to be captured and displayed (a metaphor for the lives of women in this story). At one point, Noah comments that all men and women are essentially enslaved by money, but it’s clear that his idea of enslavement is completely different from that of the women around him. And for the characters who are not white, their experience of enslavement is even more severe.
One of the few flaws in this book is the story-line built around a servant and a prostitute who are black (Simeon and Polly). Gowar creates a really compelling story and then completely drops it, which is frustrating to say the least. Why introduce characters who face oppression that the other characters have no understanding of, and then ignore them?
I found Sukie one of the most interesting characters. As a young woman, she’s fortunate to have Hancock’s protection – and yet she always feels like an afterthought, someone he can cast off at any time. Her life is entirely circumscribed by Hancock and by her mother – and yet it could be much worse. I really liked Gowar’s depiction of the uneasy friendship that Sukie and Angelica form, both of them strengthened by the other’s support in a world where few people can be trusted.
He stares out of the window. He feels as if he were on a ship in the middle of a great ocean, too far from home to turn about, but so distant from the strange shore ahead that his craft will be buffeted apart by the waves before it reaches it. ‘Mr Hancock,’ she whispers. And he turns and sees her, golden as a beacon.
I appreciated the rich historical detail, the atmospheric writing, and the use of magical realism in this novel. But most of all I appreciated Gowar’s character development. Readers looking for fantasy and adventure may be disappointed in this book, but for all other readers I definitely recommend it.
It’s important to remember where we’ve come from, and how precious the right of self-determination is. This sounds like historical fiction of the best kind to me.