This historical fiction was a delightful adventure through 1780s London society. The characters for me were the absolute backbone of this book. They were bold and rich, and for the most part, really well developed.
We follow the story of two character in this novel, a merchant trader named Mr Hancock, and a prostitute named Angelica. Mr Hancock has had his ship sold from him in exchange for a dead mermaid, so the early stages of the plot follow him trying to recover his fortune so he can purchase another ship for his business. Angelica is tasked with entertaining Mr Hancock at a soiree where the mermaid is being exhibited, and so their paths meet. The rest of the novel follows their overlapping narratives, which is both entertaining and endearing as neither seem to have much luck in life and love! I found Mr Hancock the most endearing character, but was conflicted on my views of Angelica right up to the very last page!
I loved how mermaids were used thematically in the story, in more of a commercial venture setting that gave the narrative a nice edge. I think the contrast between living and dead mermaids at the various points of the novel was also an interesting plot point, and gave particular depth to the final part of the novel and appreciation of the main characters.
Class is a theme explored really well in this novel, and Gowar really captures the grit of lower class London in the 1780s alongside the opulence and glamour of the wealthier echelons. Our two main characters teeter these worlds precariously and as a reader I found myself celebrating their windfalls and holding my breath during their moments of misadventure. What stopped this being a five star read for me (and I talk about this more in my recent video) is that I felt some of the story lines in the middle (part 2) of this novel weren’t as well developed as they could have been. Polly’s plot line is a prime example of this – I thought her character and the discussions about race were an important and meaningful contribution that I wish had been more fully expanded upon.
This was a wonderful and well-paced read, though the final 100 pages were hard to tear myself away from! Thanks to Harper Books for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.