This book was highly recommended by a number of my book blogging friends, so I was delighted to discover a copy at the local library…
One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.
And that is as much as the rather chatty blurb as I’m willing to share, given it goes on to happily give away plotpoints that occur more than a quarter of the way through this hefty read. But the other main protagonist is Angelica Neal, a courtesan trying to find another protector to maintain her lifestyle, now that the duke who looked after her has died.
First, the good news – the writing is absolutely beautiful and the historical period brilliantly realised in a series of lovely scenes that leap off the page. Gowar can certainly write. The plotting is interesting and I enjoyed the fact that just when I thought the story was going in one particular direction, it suddenly took an unexpected turn. This happened a couple of times, especially during the first two-thirds of the story. The theme of the mermaid works well as a device that both powers the plot forward and also as a symbol for the restless striving after novelty and learning that characterised those turbulent times. Though don’t pick up this one because you love the idea of a mermaid character, because that isn’t what this book is about. The first two acts in particular, were full of incident and interest.
However, I wanted to love this one more than I did. For while Gowar is clearly talented and her portrayal of the period is masterful, I didn’t ever bond with any of the characters. The rather fractious nature of the conversations between every single one of the characters left me feeling rather distanced – I found myself wanting to shake them all until their teeth rattled at one stage or another. Angelica’s flighty attitude was off-putting and just when I was beginning to care about her, the events in the third act shut her right down, putting her on the edge of the action and beyond the scope of the main story.
The pacing is also odd – instead of steadily gathering momentum, it takes a while to get going and then during that last act, which is the weakest, it suddenly drops right away again. Hm. That third act – it seems as though Gowar had several main themes that she’d wanted to weave through the story and so bundled them all into that third section, thus bringing the narrative to a juddering halt and entirely disempowering her main protagonists. We have a couple of ugly scenes, presumably to demonstrate just what a nasty time it was for women – particularly if they were black or elderly. The only reason this one didn’t go flying across the room, was the quality of the writing and the fact that I hoped the ending would rescue the story.
In the event, the ending was better than I’d begun to fear, but I just wish a large part of that final act was either cut or rewritten as I think this could have been a great book, rather than a very promising effort by a highly talented writer.