Apart from the wonderful Jonah Hancock, the unwitting new owner of a mermaid as the novel begins, this is a novel about powerful female forces and women who wish to exert control over their lives, however difficult that might be. Eighteenth Century London is vividly brought to life by Gowar; we meet merchants, bawds, prostitutes, sailors, immigrants, all seeking money, security and that elusive sense of fitting in somewhere. It’s a world of cynicism and wonder, one in which the widowed Mr Hancock, downtrodden by his formidable sister, can rediscover a zest for life and fall in love with a celebrated courtesan, Angelica Neal.
The first meeting between Angelica and Mr Hancock is inauspicious – Angelica is hired by her former ‘abbess’, the truly terrible Mrs Chappell, to entertain the retiring widower whilst Chappell makes money out of his new acquisition, the mermaid. He is horrified by what he sees that night at the ‘entertainment’, and resolves to remove himself from this element of society. However, the two characters, seemingly so different in their values and expectations, will meet again and, without giving more away than the novel’s title indicates, the joy of the novel is in the way their lives begin to intertwine.
Gowar captures her London’s fascination with the exotic – Mr Hancock’s mermaid might be ‘brown and wizened like an apple forgotten at the bottom of the barrel’, but it draws in the crowds who wish it to be real. In a more horrifying moment, Polly, a ‘quadroon’ hired out to entertain a party of rich men on Twelfth Night, is told casually that ‘we all desire to sample every sort of woman there is in the world’ and that ‘we are all in dispute as to who will have you first.’ The other ‘voice’ in the novel, running intermittently through the pages, is a female voice of another trapped creature, ‘I cry out and there is a dull nothing. I cry out and hear my own voice back.’ Females, of all kinds, are traded as objects of fascination or function, and we can only wait to see if they gain a sense of power of their own.
Gowar’s writing is brilliant – a sentence will display the illusions of grandeur and stability in her world before she whisks away the curtain to show the bare boards of the truth beneath. She’s a master at detail and relishes the physical: Mrs Chappell ‘bares her teeth, yellow as old ivory; they want a good rub with lemon juice.’ To re-create a historical world, one in which your readers will believe, takes a huge amount of convincing detail if the whole thing isn’t to come crashing down. And this is full of delicious detail. Some of her passages, largely concerning events in Mr Hancock’s life, left me almost winded with sadness. At other times, I found myself crowing aloud as the brilliant Angelica Neal refused to be outwitted by a world set up to treat women as commodities. This is a wonderful and memorable novel, and it fully deserves its place on the Women’s Prize shortlist.