Sunday, December 02, 2018

Young Writer Award: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar



Well, here's another quite amazing debut novel - a dazzling almost-500-pager set in the eighteenth century, the story of a widowed merchant seaman and a courtesan whose fortunes come together over a 'mermaid' with which the ship's captain returns from a voyage, having sold the vessel to obtain it. This sets in train a breathtaking and involving story in which characters battle the desires, longings and fears the mermaid stands for, and women in particular try to steer a course between the only options apart from lady's companion available to any genteel woman without means at that point in history: that of wife or courtesan. Taking place in the high-class brothel and the shipping worlds of eighteenth-century London, the book is rich in characters, each delineated with great insight and humanity, and in vivid historical detail. In many ways the novel adopts the mode and ethos of the true eighteenth-century novel - there is the same wry but humane irony of tone one finds in Fielding, the same third-person objectivity of narration, a picaresque feel to the plot, and an admirable, indeed enviable, authenticity of language. However, the novel also slyly undercuts that historical form, most obviously by concentrating on the lives and predicaments of eighteenth-century women (revealing in the process little-aired facts about their personal and sexual hygiene), and by concerning itself deeply with the psychology and interiority of the characters - all lent psychological immediacy and intimacy by the contemporary mode of present-tense narration. And it's very moving.

It's no wonder that this book has been shortlisted for so many prizes.
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