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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
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This “sumptuous doorstopper” is one of the year’s most hotly anticipated debuts, said Johanna Thomas-Corr in the London Evening Standard. It tells the story of a “merchant and a celebrity courtesan brought together by a mermaid in London in 1785”. The “selkie” in question is a fake: a fish’s tail sewn onto the torso of a dead infant. When it falls into the hands of Deptford merchant Jonah Hancock, he launches a lucrative freak show – which brings him into contact with the headstrong courtesan Angelica Neal. This “dazzlingly original” novel, full of heady pleasures, more than justifies the hype.

Gowar’s writing is delightfully assured, said James Walton in The Daily Telegraph. But there’s an “obvious problem”: the mermaid – not the “bogus” one that makes Mr Hancock’s fortune, but another he acquires on page 377, “after Angelica playfully asks for a living specimen”. The status of this second mermaid is ambiguous: Gowar herself seems unsure whether it’s meant to be real or imaginary. And it causes the novel to lurch “suddenly and cack-handedly” from social realism “to magical realism”.