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.