Tag Archives: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick Shortlist: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Cover imageRegular visitors to this blog will know that I tend not to review historical novels. There are exceptions, of course – Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree and Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall be Entirely Free spring to mind – but generally my feet are planted firmly in the twenty-first century. You might be surprised then to hear that Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was already sitting on my shelves waiting to be read before its shortlisting boosted it to the front of the queue. Gowar’s novel begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died.

Jonah Hancock is haunted by the stillbirth of his son and the death of his wife, burying himself in business, proud of his astute merchant’s eye and glowing reputation. When Captain Jones arrives, bearing the mermaid acquired by the sale of his ship, Hancock is at first horrified then persuaded that this shrivelled figure will make his fortune. He finds himself courted by Mrs Chappell, the sharp-eyed madam of a bordello who spots a business opportunity, persuading him to rent her the mermaid. Mrs Chappell enlists the help of Angelica Neal, much reduced following the death of her patron, instructing her to devote herself to Hancock at the lavish opening party for the creature’s display. Hancock isn’t as green as he may seem – he’s visited a prostitute or two – but he’s appalled by the lascivious goings-on, shrugging off the attentions of Angelica but not before falling heavily for her carefully cultivated charms. Out he walks, leaving Angelica to conceive her own passion which leads her into desperate trouble. When he next sees her, Angelica sets him a seemingly impossible task: she wants him to find her another mermaid.

Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail. Women are dependent on men to make their way in this world – Mrs Chappell earns her money from their debauchery, Bel finds her way to respectability and security through marriage – Mrs Flowerday is perhaps the most independent, shrewdly using her dowry as a counterweight when her husband oversteps the mark. As in the best morality tales, there’s a great deal of sly wit running through the narrative:

Mr Trevithick steps aside to draw her attention to the flagellation machine which sits in the corner awaiting its weekly polish.

Gowar engages our sympathy for her characters, deftly rounding them out: Hancock is a decent man, hoping to step up the social ladder but ill at ease with it, and Angelica’s flightiness is tempered with memories of an impoverished childhood. Just one criticism: I found the mermaid’s voice a little jarring but her passages are both short and few. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction, both absorbing and entertaining with a hefty helping of redemption.

If you’d like to see what my fellow shadow judge Amanda at Bookish Chat thinks of Gowar’s novel, her review is here. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow,

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick 2018 Shortlist

The shortlist for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick was announced yesterday and I’m relieved to tell you that I’m looking forward to reading all four books. I hope my fellow shadow judges are equally pleased.

The titles are:

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

Weymoth’s book sounds like a proper piece of travel writing, charting the author’s voyage by canoe down the Yukon River, a distance of 2,000 miles from Canada to the Bering Sea.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Already longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Man Booker, Elmet is described by the publishers as ‘a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go’.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Described by the publishers as ‘a spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’, Gowar’s novel sees a Deptford merchant take possession of a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, in 1785. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together.

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Freeman’s memoir is essentially about the power of books to cure what ails you. Diagnosed with anorexia aged fourteen, Freeman slowly found her way back to good mental health through a passion for reading.

What a great list! We shadow judges will be posting our reviews over the next few weeks. My first should go up on Friday. We’ll be revealing our winner on November 28th while the real thing will be announced at a prize-giving ceremony on December 6th.

If you’d like to know more about the award you can find out here. My fellow panelists will be posting their reviews at Bookish Chat, These Little Words, The Literary Edit and Half Man, Half Book. If you want to keep tabs on what we’re up via Twitter you can use #YoungWriterAwardShadow or follow @youngwriteryear.

What do you think of the shortlist? Have you read any of the books on it, and if so what’s your verdict?

Books to Look Out for in January 2018: Part Two

Cover imageMy first batch of 2018 titles included a volume of short stories and this second selection is led by another. It seems I really am a reformed character. I’m sure even my if views on the short story hadn’t undergone a transformation I would have been jumping up and down about Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes, a collection of fifteen pieces which can be read as ‘prequels’ to the stunning Reservoir 13. Still completely bemused as to why that didn’t make it on to the Man Booker shortlist. The stories were commissioned by BBC Radio 4: some of you may have heard them already but if not they’re available on iPlayer.

It sounds as if landscape may be as important in Kerry Andrew’s Swansong as it is in McGregor’s writing. Polly Vaughan heads for the Scottish Highlands, fleeing the guilt of a ‘disturbing incident’ in London. She finds escapism in the form of drink, drugs and sex in the local pub but is haunted by visions then fascinated by a man she comes upon in the forest seemingly ripping apart a bird. Andrew ‘comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting’ say the publishers, promisingly.Cover image

Dominic da Silva is also dealing with a crisis, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer in David Hargreaves’ Under the Table. He turns to the diaries he’s kept from his boarding school years to his early thirties and finds a picture emerging of both himself and of Britain through the ‘60s and into the ‘80s, revealing a life which ricochets from grand house parties to arrest and disgrace in what the publishers describe as ‘a powerful homage to truth and friendship – and a recognition of the toughness upon which both depend’. I quite like the sound of that.

There’s a fair amount of unravelling in Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew . Marcie and her husband have been together for thirty years, running a bar at the edge of town. One day Arlene appears expecting to find a man she’d once known. Then Franky returns hoping that his previous mistakes have been forgotten. As Arlene gets closer to the truth things begin to fall apart. ‘Powell invites us to consider how much we know about the ones we love and finally asks: would you want to know the truth?’ says the blurb. Powell’s darkly funny debut, Trading Futures, was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction although the paradox is that some of my favourite novels are just that: Ingenious Pain, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Essex Serpent and The Observations spring to mind. All are delivered with more than a spark of flair and originality which is what I’m hoping for in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. In 1785 a ship’s captain takes a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, to a merchant in Deptford. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together in a ‘spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’ according to the publishers. There’s also mention of coffee shops, parlours and brothels which has me hoping for a romp along the lines of The Fatal Tree. We’ll see

That’s it for January’s new books. A click on a title will take you to detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part it’s here. Paperbacks to follow shortly…