CW: abortion and miscarriage.
I’ve not read a historical fiction book for a little while, so it was a real refresher to pick up The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, and remember why it is that I love this genre so much.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is set in the 18th Century, and follows the stories of Mr. Hancock and Angelica Neal, an unlikely pair brought together after the captain of Mr. Hancock’s ship trades the ship for a mermaid.
I always say that historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and this book reminded me why that is. I really love period fashion, it’s something I find super interesting, and I love how historical fiction can create a feeling of the time period through references to clothing. This book also manages to give the impression of bustling streets, of horses passing, and grime on the ground without having to explicitly describe these things. We are given enough setting in order to fill in the rest. For a debut novel, this balancing of giving and implying setting is definitely impressive. In fact, a lot of things are impressive about this debut!
Character-driven books are something I’m always drawn towards, and while I wouldn’t consider this book character-driven, the characters were all well-developed, and they were interesting and believable. They weren’t always likable, particularly Angelica, but her actions were always in-keeping with her character. Her erratic and often self-centred behaviour was grating, but that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy reading her character. Imogen Hermes Gowar is able to tread the line between an enjoyable unlikable character, and an annoying character. Jonah Hancock was another character that I sort of flipped between liking and not: he had some moments of cruelty and rashness, but I never felt bored of spending time in his life. Sukie, Jonah’s niece and ward, was probably my favourite character in the book for her confidence, kindness, and determination.
The pacing of the book was fabulous, with peaks and troughs to the narrative throughout. While it wasn’t heavily plotty, there was always something happening, and several smaller narratives that all tied into the grander narrative that winds throughout the book. This was something I really liked, because the smaller narratives offered a chance to really get to know the characters, while not feeling as though the book was dragging. The coming together of the different narratives throughout the book felt natural as well, as opposed to forced. I do often find with books that start out with apparently entirely unrelated characters who then discover their connections to each other feel a bit forced and it suspends my disbelief, but this was more a narrative of how these previously unconnected characters became connected, as opposed to any staggering coincidences.
Overall, this was a book that I really enjoyed reading, and it was a nice break for me. I couldn’t tell you why I haven’t read any historical fiction lately, but I’ve just found myself reading a fair bit of science fiction, classics and contemporary over the last few months, so it was great to return to one of my old favourite genres. This read also has the added element of fantasy, which isn’t something I’d usually go for, but it was actually not a large part of the narrative (despite “Mermaid” literally being in the title), and I didn’t feel as though the inclusion of the mermaid detracted in any way from the realism of the rest of the narrative. The way the characters behaved and related to one another was very realistic, and the mermaids featured in this story are more objects of curiosity or bad omens than characters, which I felt enabled Imogen Hermes Gowar to explore a wider range of tones in this story than she would have been able to without the presence of something supernatural. I would definitely recommend this to any fans of historical fiction, particularly Jessie Burton, because I feel like this incorporates the fantastical element with the historical to create something quite delicate and beautiful.
Have you read this book? Or, do you have any historical fiction recommendations for me? I have the bug now!