Imogen Hermes-Gower’s debut was scooped up after a ten-way bidding war and now the novel has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. A work of historical fiction, Hermes-Gower captures Georgian London in a lyrical prose which creates a vivid narrative.
Exploring the lives and exploits of merchant Jonah Hancock and courtesan Angelica Neal, alongside a host of other colourful characters. The narrative is realism to the core – not shying away from the nitty gritty details or grotesque aspects of daily life, yet it combines these with a sense of mystery and magic with the discovery of the mermaid. Hermes-Gower paints an extraordinary picture of life across society in this era, of what it is to be a woman and how to survive.
Angelica is a vibrant character, full of romance and hopes and dreams, despite her years of prostitution. Her fantasies are soon derailed and as the tale takes a dark turn Angelica’s story becomes highly emotive and compelling. She faces obstacles in the shape of the larger than life madam Mrs Chappell and the devilish Rockingham who gives Austen’s Wickham a run for his money. She captures the attentions of mermaid man Mr Hancock however, and agrees to marry him on the condition that he gives her his mermaid, alas, the mermaid he has just sold.
However it is towards the end of the book where the joyous, lighthearted narrative departs in a turn of events that is truly heartwrenching, with a visceral scene of trauma that packs a punch after the gentle hilarity that has preceded. As a reader, we wish Angelica every happiness but as she faces trauma, and Jonah Handcock is steadily drawn into an obsession which causes him to neglect all else, our dreams for Angelica seem to slip away.
There is no knowing on opening this book, where it will take you, and likewise at every stage it is impossible to predict where you will go next. The narrative is truly original and incredibly enjoyable, a feat for a book which falls into historical fiction.
- This review was first published on the author's own blog See Orange