Shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
“Wonderful… completely transporting.” —Madeline Miller, New York Times bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles
In 1780s London, a prosperous merchant finds his quiet life upended when he unexpectedly receives a most unusual creature—and meets a most extraordinary woman—in this much-lauded, atmospheric debut that examines our capacity for wonder, obsession, and desire with all the magnetism, originality, and literary magic of The Essex Serpent.
One September evening in 1785, Jonah Hancock hears an urgent knocking on his front door near the docks of London. The captain of one of Jonah’s trading vessels is waiting eagerly on the front step, bearing shocking news. On a voyage to the Far East, he sold the Jonah’s ship for something rare and far more precious: a mermaid. Jonah is stunned—the object the captain presents him is brown and wizened, as small as an infant, with vicious teeth and claws, and a torso that ends in the tail of a fish. It is also dead.
As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlors and brothels, all of London is curious to see this marvel in Jonah Hancock’s possession. Thrust from his ordinary existence, somber Jonah finds himself moving from the city’s seedy underbelly to the finest drawing rooms of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of the coquettish Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on—and a shrewd courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting sparks a perilous liaison that steers both their lives onto a dangerous new course as they come to realize that priceless things often come at the greatest cost.
Imogen Hermes Gowar, Britain’s most-heralded new literary talent, makes her debut with this spellbinding novel of a merchant, a mermaid, and a madam—an unforgettable confection that explores obsession, wonder, and the deepest desires of the heart with bawdy wit, intrigue, and a touch of magic.
About the Author
Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History at UEA’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts before going on to work in museums. She began to write small pieces of fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with and around, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA.
She won the Curtis Brown Prize for her dissertation, which grew into a novel titled The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. An early draft was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition 2015, and it was also one of three entries shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award.
“Wonderful… completely transporting.” — Madeline Miller, author of Circe and The Song of Achilles
“This glittering debut novel examines every rung of 18th-century London’s social ladder with keen wit and in delicious detail.” — People
“A fascinating, beautifully written, semi-historical take on mermaid mania, with two complicated human beings at the center of it.” — Bustle
“It’s hard to believe that this brilliant and sure-footed work is a debut novel. Gowar’s feel for the spirit of the period is spot on… with an unsentimental acknowledgment of the harsh entrapments occasioned by gender, class and race; her prose sparkles with sly wit, inviting inevitable comparisons to Jane Austen.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The novel calls to mind 19th-century masters like Dickens and Eliot, who relished the way character can drive and reverse plot…. Behind the window trimmings of Gowar’s epic romance lies an astute novel about class, race, and fate that will delight fans of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo. An ambitious debut with enough romance, intrigue, and social climbing to fill a mermaid’s grotto to the brim.” — Kirkus, starred review
“This is, indeed, a kind of fairy tale, one whose splendid combination of myth and reality testifies to Gowar’s imagination and talent.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Concerned with the issue of women’s freedom, Gowar offers a panoramic view of Georgian society, from its coffeehouses and street life to class distinctions and multicultural populace.... A sumptuous historical feast.” — Booklist, starred review
“A historical fantasy in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.” — BookPage
“Superb…. A cracking historical novel… by turns intriguing, touching, funny, sad and heartwarming…. The cast of endlessly engaging characters will keep you turning the pages until you get to the wholly satisfying ending…. The novel immerses you in a world in a way that reminds me of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.” — Times (London)
“Fascinating and funny, this is undoubtedly the start of a major career for this young writer.” — Vogue (London)
“There is much to chew on here, and much to savour, presented with wit and showmanship…. The elan of this book is female, from the madams running their girls, to the book’s most obvious literary forebear, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Imogen Hermes Gowar is the real deal.” — Guardian (London)
“The richness and rhythm of the writing is irresistible.” — Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth is Missing and Whistle in the Dark
“A swift, rollicking read…. Richly descriptive…. Like the recent historical-fiction hits Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, this is a novel pungent in historical detail.” — Sunday Times (London)
“Historical fiction at its finest, combining myth and legend with the brutal realities of the past, chief among them the mistreatment of women and black people and the inequality that existed among the classes. Comparisons will be drawn to the works of contemporary authors Sarah Waters and Michael Faber… but The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has more in common with the novels of Dickens and Austen.” — Irish Times
“A gripping… study of the intertwined lives of sex workers and high society in Georgian London…. Themes… — of independence, love, class, death and gender stereotypes — are skilfully explored here through a late 18th-century lens.” — Financial Times (London)
“Absolutely delightful... I read it greedily, savoring the characters’ adventures and their wit, resilience and humanity as they contend with the glittering, filthy, dangerous city that was Georgian London. The novel is a well-researched, charming, immensely entertaining read.” — Maria McCann, author of As Meat Loves Salt
“A story of obsession and curiosity, this book is all the better for its rich detail, thanks to Hermes Gowar’s impeccable research.” — Stylist (London)
“From the first page of this dazzling debut novel, you are pitched into a sumptuously detailed adventure set in the bustle and swagger of 18th century London.… The result is a wonderfully written and richly descriptive novel, its brilliantly drawn characters driven by heady and dangerous desires.” — Sunday Express (London), 5/5 stars
“A lush Georgian yarn to sink into like a warm bath…. The themes are chewy… never heavy. What this escapade delivers above all is pure storytelling pleasure.” — Metro (London), 4/5 stars