I loved this luscious, lyrical, and somewhat bawdy historical fiction. Debut author, Imogen Hermes Gowar offers readers not only a great story but also an intimate view of the culture and mores of late 18th Century London. (Click here for a tour with the author.) I’ve read enough Regency Romances (thanks Jane Austen & Wilma Counts!) to be familiar with the period, but this exquisite piece of fiction added oodles of delightful, quotidian detail to my lexicon. Foods. Utensils. Customs. Clothing. Language. Expectations. Examples: syllabub, jade, rosolio, redingote, doxy, Lascar, pelisses, dandyprat, tipsy-cake, calamanco. Reading on a Kindle allowed me to look up word without running to a dictionary. Better yet, the new words never got in the way of the story, but simply added to its depth and feeling.
Jonah Hancock is a respectable but unremarkable businessman longing for some measure of happiness after the death of his wife and child. Angelica Neal is a haughty and renowned courtesan who finds herself suddenly without a protector. Mrs. Chappell is the elderly and successful “abbess” of a “nunnery” where Angelica began her career. Through vividly drawn characters from very different worlds, Gowar explores themes of freedom, security, captivity, and ownership, suggesting that ownership harms both the owner and the owned. Everyone, as the adage reminds us, is the hero of their own story.
The interactions among these characters within and without their strict class boundaries makes for some lively conversations and insights, including this one with the aged bawd, Mrs. Chappell.
“Hypocrites!” she exclaims. ‘Who let their own daughters starve almost to death, or put them in cruel marriages, or slake their lust upon them most unnaturally. To think I do any worse by them. Tis an insult! The girls that come to me –and, mark me, their own parents bring them often enough—suffer worse abuses in their own homes that they ever will with me.”
I believe the two (yes, two!) mermaids—one dead, one alive—are stand-ins for the longings, desires, and even that fears that each of the vividly drawn characters harbors. Fortune. A child. A protector. Status. Happiness. Survival. However, “…mermaids are the most unnatural of creatures, and their hearts are empty of love.”
And from the lyrical voice of the mermaid herself, we hear her compel Mr. Hancock to her.
“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. You think your arms are empty, but I shall lie in them…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 in you; I am the grief that sits between you.”
Thank you, Ms. Gowar, for a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Recommend.