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THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK

An ambitious debut with enough romance, intrigue, and social climbing to fill a mermaid’s grotto to the brim.

In this rollicking Georgian romp, a courtesan and a merchant make an unlikely pair as they navigate the grand palaces and back alleys of London society.

Jonah Hancock, the “merchant son of a merchant’s son,” has made his fortune by being sensible. But when the captain of one of his vessels trades everything for a mermaid specimen, “brown and wizened like an apple forgotten at the bottom of the barrel,” Hancock fears his fortune is lost forever. His luck changes when the mermaid piques the interest of Mrs. Chappell, the elderly madam of London’s “celebrated Temple of Venus.” Well-versed in the appetites of rich men, Mrs. Chappell debuts the mermaid in a pornographic burlesque show that would make HBO executives blush. There, Hancock is brought into the orbit of Angelica Neal, a beautiful but capricious courtesan teetering on the edge of financial ruin. The two make an unlikely couple, but Angelica's debts require payment, so a marriage is at last proposed. Gowar’s debut is rich in detail, with a plot that unfolds like a luxurious carriage ride through the country. Though the story is set in the 1780s, during the reign of King George III, the novel calls to mind 19th-century masters like Dickens and Eliot, who relished the way character can drive and reverse plot. And there are so many characters to follow: Mrs. Chappell’s simpering brood of high-society prostitutes; Simeon Stanley, a footman and former slave from the American Colonies; George Rockingham, a rakish law student and dandy; Eliza Frost, a spinster who serves as Angelica’s controlling friend and manager; Sukie, Hancock’s young and impressionable niece; and, through it all, the ghostly mermaid, whose grief, anger, and playfulness serve as a backdrop to the social drama unfolding around her. 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.

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-285995-2

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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