The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock | 2020 Reading Challenge
“A loss is not a void.
A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives…
I am here; I am here; you are not alone. Here I am; I am grief, the living child of your suffering. I am the grief that sits within you; I am the grief that sits between you.
You will bury me but I shall rise up.
You will not know me, but I shall make myself known to you.”
This book is part of my 2020 Reading Challenge. The following are my thoughts, impressions, etc. surrounding the book I read. This is not meant to be a formal book review – if you would like to know why, you can read about my intentions with this Challenge here. Now onto The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – spoilers and all!
I have been reading this book for about one year; basically since I received it as part of my September 2018 Book of the Month Club box. I know this because I posted a photo on Instagram soon after I received it, and then three more times between then and now, all with a “finally getting to this book!” sort of declarative caption.
Well, as of January 2020 I have finally finished reading it. What a long, laborious, drawn-out journey it has been. Before I elaborate on my thoughts, though, here’s the summary from the front cover flap:
One September evening in 1785, just beyond the docks of London, Jonah Hancock hears an urgent knocking on his front door. The captain of one of Jonah’s trading vessels is waiting anxiously on the front step, bearing shocking news. On a voyage to the Far East, he sold Jonah’s ship for something rare and far more precious: a mermaid. Jonah is stunned – the object the captain presents him is brown, wizened, and 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-houses, salons, and brothels, all of London is curious to see the marvel in Jonah’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 liaison that steers both their lives onto a perilous new course – for priceless things often come at the greatest cost.
This synopsis, the book title, and the decent amount of pages – 484 in my edition – did their job in strongly capturing my initial attention, while the character introductions and events in the first few chapters had me even more excited for Imogen Hermes Gowar’s tale. But after the buildup to and spotlight on displaying the mermaid – which happens in the first 150 pages – the story meanders in quite a dull fashion.
I have painstakingly considered this meandering pace of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, because although many more things take place within the story (even another mermaid is brought to shore – alive this time), nothing really feels climactic until the end – the excitement of which doesn’t actually last, either. Volumes II and most of III felt like the story was fizzling out – over the span of 300 pages. I wanted to feel something for the many characters and various plot lines, and at the conclusion I did so for a fleeting moment, but that thing that elevates stylish descriptions and emotions from a place of hollowness to a place of substance was achieved then slightly depleted.
This book covers social puppeteering, wealth and status, grief and consequences. There are a few passages throughout the book that are presumably from the perspective of the mermaid – first, the mermaid from the beginning, then the one from the end. These are interpretive and curious enough to make you want to sit with the words for a few moments, thinking over their relationship to the book and to the world outside the pages. The quote I began this blog post with is one of those passages, and this is another I consider noteworthy:
First I sink,
Then I trickle,
Then I rush.
I am here; and here; and here. I touch this surface and also that.
I mingle, I quiver with a thousand new voices, and all these voices my own. I am a great tumble of motion which torrents all in unison.
And learning and knowing are the same, and I am a mite, and we are all the space allowed to us.
And if I am made of grief, well! Here is joy, and if I am made of fury, here is peace.
Rush, rush, we rush, a sparkling stream through rock and moss, deep in the cold stone of the earth. No daylight here, no dying breaths to catch up. We rush young and bright, and ever widening, and these bitter atoms are lost in new-minted freshness.
We hasten, hasten, onward to the boundless sea.
These sections of the book are there to reinforce the human characters’ actions and personas. At the beginning, the mermaid’s passages are more like comments on humans and men, like the ones who take and plunder the oceans and earth. The passages at the end (which include the ones I have quoted here) sort of help develop the consequences of capturing and keeping a mermaid: the captor and those around them experience soul-sucking sadness and sorrow. It almost felt like a metaphor, which then had me thinking that the story of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is actually an allegory for the habits, variety, and activities of life. I came to this realization at the very end of the book, before I read the epilogue, and it truly was a moment of deep satisfaction. The meandering pace and all of the events I had previously found dull bloomed into importance.
And then in the epilogue, the author decided to erase all allegorical speculation (and make it more obvious that the story is allegorical) with the following:
Even its members are surprised by one another, having reasonably expected that a careful hostess takes pains to segregate her guests for the sake of delicacy, but they concede without a word spoken that this is really no different from any night at the pleasure gardens, where those of all walks of life are thrown together and yet succeed in speaking to nobody outside their own sort. Besides! This is a mermaid party – a most amphibious thing – who amongst them does not have the right to witness such a marvel? In fact it might be observed that the grotto becomes a very menagerie, a Wunderkammer of all the classifications of human, who pace warily together, and watch with interest as each curiosity reveals its own habits as to feeding, and dancing, and drinking, and conversation.
The one reason I can think of for finding this – the exposure of The Point of the story – so deflating is that I don’t believe the epilogue was necessary. The quote above that starts with “First, I sink” would have been such a delicious and thrilling way to end the book, especially since it follows the chapter with Mr. and Mrs. Hancock ridding themselves of the mermaid and of their sorrow, but instead we had to continue with a creative explanation of The Point, and a dull scene of the happy couple heading off to breakfast. With the final few chapters and that final mermaid reflection, I felt like the story had actually gone somewhere, and I was looking forward to thinking more deeply about it. But then The Point was spelled out for me and I closed the book on a mediocre note. Like I said, it was deflating.
So where do I stand on The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock? Without the epilogue, I think it is entertaining and satisfying. With it, well, I think the book should have been restructured as a short story so that I would not have had to invest so much time in 484 pages worth of characters and events just to be told the point at the end.
If you have thoughts on this book, and/or anything to say about my thoughts on the book, be sure to leave a comment – I would love to have a discussion with you. And for more information about my 2020 Reading Challenge, click here.
Thanks for reading!