Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

On a stormy night in 1785, a lonely middle-aged widow named Jonah Hancock, is waiting for his ship to return from its latest voyage around the Pacific. Mr Hancock is nervous – there has been no news of his ship, Calliope, of late. Soon all is explained, for Captain Tysoe Jones arrives at his door, having sold the Callipoe off the coast of Macao to pay for a fossilised mermaid.

From here on in Gowar’s debut novel follows Mr Hancock as he attempts to recoup the cost of his ship by exhibiting the mermaid. Slowly he is drawn into the orbit of Angelica Neal – a famous socialite in want of a good husband to keep her in the style she is accustomed.

This ad for the display of a small fossilized mermaid is from the British Museum where the author worked

This ad for the display of a small fossilized mermaid is from the British Museum where the author worked

Whilst this might be Gowar’s first novel, it doesn’t read that way. It reads like Jane Austen, but more so (if such a thing were possible) – like when Mr Hancock considers why he cares for his niece:

“A man without the immediate demands of wife and children finds himself called upon for a multitude of little wants elsewhere.”

If I’ve read a better version of “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” then I can’t remember it. Gowar’s whole style is like this, funny, warm, and witty – I zipped through 450 pages hardly blinking.

Characters leap from the pages too – Mrs Lippard is, “fifty-five, as straight and cool as a steel pin, with ten fine children to exert her will upon the world“, while Mrs Chappell  “has the paws of a little rodent; pink and plumply tapered”. It’s all great fun – not a weak woman in sight, no passengers here, just well-formed characters who learn a different version of Angelica Neal’s number one lesson in life:

“It is better always to be fierce than to be sad”

Oh I’d recommend this easily enough. It’s fun, well written, and very satisfying. Certainly the most satisfying bit of new fiction I’ve read this year.


So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Let me know in the comments!


If you’re after something similar, then I’d say this is the closest I’ve got for you:

Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry - A sumptuous affair about Cora Seabourne - Recently widowed, she heads to the sleepy town of Aldwinter on the Blackwater - partly to see if she can find evidence of a fabled Serpent that will make her name in the sciences, and partly to find her feet after being freed from her domineering husband.

But you might want to try this sumptuous book from last year too:

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - A wonderful book that will leave you with a smile on your face.
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