Mermaids get the novel treatment in two new books
Mermaids’ strange magic has fascinated humans for centuries, despite their association with misfortune or, perhaps, because of it. Two hotly anticipated fall novels — The Oyster Thief by Sonia Faruqi and The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar — are tales with mermaids at their centre.
Faruqi’s fiction debut (she previously wrote Project Animal Farm, a scathing look at the international food industry) is a contemporary tale about the unlikely relationship between a mermaid and a landlubber. Her investigative journalistic skills and theme of greed and unscrupulousness feature prominently in The Oyster Thief’s richly realized underwater tale set in Meristem in the Central Atlantic Ocean.
Coralline is a young mermaid on a quest to find an elusive elixir. Accompanied by a prudish sea horse, prickly snail, sarcastic whale shark and a freshly minted merman, she encounters deception, murder and love while questioning her purpose in life.
A few hundred feet below sea level, Meristem feels more prudish than Georgian England. No bare breasted mermaids here where the objectification of the female body — and its inherent shame — is among the catalogue of human pollutants Coralline and her people must suffer.
Faruqi’s narrative possesses classic hallmarks of YA fiction (a discernable facial scar, an orphan raised in a storage closet, the smart aleck best friend) while favouring the telling-not-showing storytelling style. Her imagination and knowledge are impressive, but the flourishes of detail and repetition become distracting.
That is, until we reach the jewel at the novel’s centre. Here Faruqi riffs on the importance of honouring your own radiance, and it truly shines. This is the overall take away of The Oyster Thief.
It’s also a theme that permeates throughout Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, also a debut novel. It’s set in Georgian London, in 1785, and centres on the improbable relationship between a portly widower and a haughty courtesan.
Sailing merchant Johan Hancock is initially fraught when the Captain of his long-absent boat tells him he’s sold said boat for a mermaid. Hesitantly, Hancock comes around when talk shifts to the potential fortune exhibiting the creature to the curious masses will yield.
Angelica Neal is a selective courtesan hoping to re-enter society to find another wealthy admirer after a failed stint as a kept mistress. Otherwise she’ll have to return to work for Mrs. Chappell, the “abbess” of the city’s most select brothel.
Mr. Hancock, with his solid provincial decency, and Angelica Neal, a sex worker who “knows prophylaxis the way other girls know the catechism” are worlds apart and yet their coupling — handled imaginatively with intelligence and humour — comes to a satisfying and realistic conclusion.
Hermes Gowar’s killer vocabulary invites readers to delve into her titillating and frank look at men’s centuries-old passions and their political conservatism while surreptitiously showcasing contemporary parallels. Ribald, bawdy and remarkable constructed, she deftly weaves backstories and subplots into a rich tapestry where life-altering losses smack up against excessive indulgence.
Vivid characters from the “more upholstered than clothed” Mrs. Chappell, to Hester Lippard and her “querulous agitation,” to the titular Mrs. Hancock who learns to navigate the Georgian patriarchy to her favour, Hermes Gowar shouts out to her literary predecessors in her own strong distinct voice. Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson and, of course, Jane Austen, come to mind but her voice is undeniably her own.
The intermittent inclusion of the mermaids’ haunting song throughout the novel serves as its connective tissue. While their lament is ripe with grief, it also implores Mr. Hancock and Angelica to push beyond their comfort zones and embrace their radiance. Magic.
Both The Oyster Thief and The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock flirt with the enduring nature of mermaid lore, harnessing the illusive creatures into engaging narratives. Although worlds apart, both encourage readers to remember their own vibrant connection to the world around them.
Elizabeth Mitchell is a Toronto writer