Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar


I decided to read The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock after listening to an interview with the novel’s author, Imogen Hermes Gowar on the Guardian books podcast (which is, by the way, always worth a listen). You can find the interview here:

What attracted me to the story was the way Hermes Gowar has isolated an aspect of late eighteenth century London society – its fascination for exotica and curios – and taken that as a reference point for exploring the city at large, in terms of its changing physical and cultural landscapes.

The story hinges on the moment when merchant Jonah Hancock discovers that his ship has been sold in exchange for what is claimed to be a mermaid. Devastated over the loss of his vessel, Hancock nevertheless endeavours to recoup his losses by putting the mermaid’s mummified remains on display.

In fact, public fascination with the mermaid gains Hancock access to social spheres which, as a ‘middling’ kind of merchant he has never previously enjoyed: from the luxury and sensuality of an upmarket King Street brothel to the newly moneyed circles of Mary-le-Bone and Blackheath. In the process, he meets renowned courtesan Angelica Neal who proves as alluring as the mermaid itself.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock emerges as a work of textual archaeology, revealing the hidden histories of those people who frequently serve as little more than ‘local colour’ in received versions of national history. In contemplating her future as Hancock’s wife, for example, Angelica realises the extent to which her own identity will ultimately be lost; concealed beneath a series of socially-prescribed roles:

These claims upon her will only multiply – she will be mother-in-law, grandmother, widow, dependant – and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left. (p.372)

The novel also references characters who slip through the net of white-washed historical narrative such as Polly – a mixed race prostitute, displayed like the mermaid as a curiosity.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock throws the reader headfirst into the murky waters of a city on the brink of change: into its new role as a capitalist powerhouse. In this respect, London itself emerges as a protagonist in the novel, transformed by a burgeoning economic reality which sees social climbers like Mr Hancock encroaching on the terrain of the upper classes.

This is a multi-layered jewel of a book, injecting London’s past with an immediacy which makes you question how far removed we are from such a reality. The fetishising of women’s bodies and the hunger for what we perceive to be exotic or grotesque are after all as characteristic of our contemporary media as they ever were for 18th century London society.

A beautifully written, startling and disturbing piece of fiction.

The Fresco and the Fountain – Sample Chapter

the fresco and the fountain

I’m currently working on part two of “The Artist Enchanters Series” – The Fresco and the Fountain which I hope will be ready by late spring of 2019

Part One – The Firefarer – is currently available here:

This is the first book I’ve decided to write away from Wattpad, for the simple reason that I needed more leeway to experiment with narrative structure. As with part one, I have also opted for more of a decentralised narrative. This time, however, the story is told from four perspectives not three, the fourth being that of the elector Lino Ampelio Ol Terenzo. The reason for this is that I felt that he was a character who really needed more ‘air time’, and also that I need more practice in writing three-dimensional villains.

The following is the first chapter I’ve written from Lino’s perspective. All critique is welcome.



Sunlight fingered its way between the heavy drapes, settling in pale spots on the carpet and bedclothes; specks of dust dancing in the slants of its rays.

Lino Ampelio Ol Terenzo stirred, wresting free of ragged, torturous dreams; nightmares which broke across his sleeping mind like furious waves. He moaned, his nightshirt a damp rag pasted to his skin with sweat. And those same dreams now threatened to break the seal of his conscious thoughts: to flood his waking mind.

Faintly nauseous, Lino crawled off the bed, stripped himself of the soiled nightshirt, hung over the washbasin and poured water over his head.

He looked up. His reflection stared back: eyes wild and deep in their sockets, his skin pallid, water dripping from sodden lengths of hair and beard, pooling at his feet. Fire…he had dreamed of fire…again. Of forests aflame, stags and boar rushing through the heat; bristles and fur fuming, screaming as they ran. And far away; far beyond all help, the tortured cries of men and women as the inferno swallowed them whole. Such a dream had not laid claim to his unconscious mind in weeks. Not since…

Three loud raps on the door to his chambers splintered his thoughts. Struggling into fresh hose and shirt, Lino charged across the bedroom and through the solar beyond, flipped open the spy hole and peered out. Viewed through convex glass, Tomiso was a bulging, swollen head attached to fine, tapering limbs. Lino tore back bolt after bolt, jerked open the door and ushered in his servant.

“Where is she?”

Tomiso gnawed on his lower lip, casting a wild glance around the chambers. “She’s not here, then?”

“Tomiso…” Lino clasped the young man’s shoulders. “I cannot endure another night such as the last. What happened?”

“The dream sculptor…” Tomiso shrank beneath his grasp… “She’s gone, my Lord Elector. Fled. Escaped!”

Lino dragged a shaking hand over his own face, his palm slippery with sweat. “Find her. Bring her back here. Or…Tomiso…” he shook a finger at Tomiso, who was already departing the room. “I’ll have your hide for hers.”

Tomiso stalled, his back turned to his master, and nodded. “Very well, my Lord.”


Watery sunlight spilled between the tiled rooftops of Terenzo, settling over cobbled streets. But the first heavy rains of autumn had lashed the city nights before, and the wheels of Lino’s carriage sprayed through puddles; the dry dust of the streets now a thick, viscous paste.

Edging forwards in his seat, Lino lifted the blind and peered out. As instructed, his driver had taken a circuitous route along winding alleys and some of the safer backstreets so as to avoid unnecessary attention. Even so, he caught the mocking, jeering calls from taverns and stall handlers as he passed…and flicked back the blind.

Terenzo had been so quick to turn against him: like a heat-crazed dog, fawning one moment, baring its teeth the next. One misjudgement, one slip was all it had taken….and he was suddenly to be reviled: the butt of a thousand jokes, the world’s whipping boy. Grieving mothers assailed him in the street, wailing for their lost sons and daughters. Hidden hands strewed pamphlets through eating houses and inns, claiming that he – Ol Terenzo – was in the secret pay of the Ruach.

Lino snorted, contempt tempering his rage. Those same fools, all of whom had begged him for deliverance from the Ahi; who had themselves proclaimed the Firefarer a gift, not a curse. All of them who’d willingly slaughtered or enslaved the Ruach in the name of Pagese purity. Now they had made him their enemy. And, he thought, scratching at his beard, they would regret it.

The carriage turned a corner and arced into the forum. Lino waited a few moments, savouring the calm before clambering out, squinting into the light. Behind him lay the steps and colonnades of the Kolegio within which he had, several years before, secured his electorate. He took in the wide open sweep of the forum itself, flanked on all sides by artists’ studios and academies of music; by garrets in which scribes worked day and night, penning miraculous texts;  the cellars and inns whose chefs concocted dishes to delight and deceive. This was all his work. He, first of all patrons, had attracted these artists, the greatest of their kind, to work here in Terenzo. To pursue their vocations with utter freedom. To spread the fame and glory of the electorate beyond its borders. And was that good work now to be undone by a handful of his rival electors?

The forum was hedged in with silence. Indebted as the artists were to Ol Terenzo’s patronage, they would not risk raising their voices against him. But as he climbed tiled stairs to the sandstone portico of the Kolegio: as he entered it and strode along a corridor strewn with paintings, littered with sculptures, lined with books, a hiss rose and broke on the air, rising in volume as he approached the Chamber of the Electors. The Pagi were at work somewhere, hiding behind screens or in alcoves, seeking to threaten or disturb; to steer him from his course. The fools.

And in contrast to the stillness of the forum, the Chamber of the Electors was awash with sound: with the shrill pipe of a woman’s laughter, the dull mutter of gossip, the harmonies and cadences of human voices which dried or shrivelled away as he crossed the threshold and took his place at its very centre.

Dreamed into being by ancient architects, the chamber was cavernous, and no living artist had yet discovered how a vault of such shape and space might be housed within the modest square of the Kolegio. Funnelling from floor to ceiling in a series of ever widening circles, light streamed in through a glass dome set high in the roof. Beneath this most mystical of designs – for the dome could not be seen when outside the building – the Pagi sat on ringed benches of stone protruding from the walls: artisans and assistants at the top, master artists and craftsmen below, ascending in rank until at the chamber’s very base, at its deepest point,  the electors themselves sat on five stone thrones, one of which, as Lino knew it should be, lay empty, and one of which, as he knew it shouldn’t, was now occupied.

“And what…what is this?” Sweeping his robes beneath him, Lino claimed his throne and cast suspicious eyes on the young, blonde-haired woman who occupied the throne of Ol Lauro, her bare arms resting along its sides and her delicate frame caught in a fusion of saffron gauze and silk.

Struggling to command his own voice, Lino addressed the woman directly. “Why are you in Ol Lauro’s throne?”

Her smile was tight and chill, her words imbued with the subtle melodies of birdsong. “Because I am his successor.”

“My Lord Elector, you were too late.” Benasto Ol Hauriro narrowed his eyes, watching, waiting for Lino’s response. Ol Hauriro was built like a bull, with a head so wide and flushed one could imagine horns sprouting from his temples. And yet, as Lino was aware, this minotaur had once studied under Artemisia of Warvum, and had committed to canvas images so vivid, so perfect in form, colour and dimension, that they had been assumed real.

Lino turned, surveying the front most circle of stone benches. So Avala was not here. At least he did not have her to thank for this betrayal.

“I was not late,” he said carefully.

“The Pagi have voted.” Rising, Ol Hauriro spread his arms wide in a gesture which embraced the entire chamber. “And their word is that Sybilla Ol Lauro take her Uncle’s place.”

Lino swallowed down his gall. “And Ol Caneto? Or any of the other candidates?”

Ol Haruriro shrugged, his head dropping into his shoulders so he appeared entirely without a neck. “Absent, I’m afraid. But it is said that the new resident of Libarum – whom you failed to invite to the Kolegio – has netted a haul of fine artists. And Ol Caneto among them.”

“I did not invite him,” said Lino, picking with feigned disinterest at lint on his cloak, “because he is a mere tenant at best, at worst a pretender. And no one can tell us how he came by that seal.”

Still, this toying with his brother would have to end soon. If Vito chose to disclose his secret, it would take but one credulous artist to leak word of it through the electorates. A sudden thought occurred to him: a way of stalling that particular threat, of extracting its sting. He tossed the idea about his mind as a street juggler might throw a ball, testing it for weight. And then archived it away in his memory.

“We could have asked him how he came by it,” said Petro Ol Diacomo, “if you’d invited him.” The architect’s eyes were grey flecked gold, his nose hooked, his jaw straight. His hair – metallic in hue – spiked away from his forehead in uneven tufts, all of which conspired to give him an avian, almost hawkish appearance. “Perhaps,” Ol Diacomo continued, “he might know the whereabouts of the missing dukes themselves.”

Lino stiffened. “In these dark days, who can tell what became of them? Mauled by animals, the prisoners of wild Ruach, massacred by the Ahi? They vanished without trace.”

“After dining with you.” Ol Diacomo’s smile was thin and strained.

“I saw them to their carriage.” He shook his head. “A mystery. A tragedy.”

“Which leaves Andretta Ol Adama sole heir,” Sybilla cut in with her singsong voice. “She wasn’t, I believe, with her family when they arrived in Terenzo, my Lord Elector.”

“No,” he said, his chest tightening. “She wasn’t.”

And there was another secret of which his brother was keeper. The boy was steeped in them. And becoming more dangerous by the day.

“And if Andretta is still alive…” lilted Sybilla.

“Doubtful.” Lino scratched at his cheek.

“But if she is…”

“My fellow electors!” His patience fraying, Lino’s voice rang out through the chamber with greater force than he had intended. “You forget, I think, that only  through unity will the Pagi triumph over their enemies. That is why we have disposed of the hateful Ruach. It is how, eventually, we will defeat the Ahi.”

“Eventually,” snorted Ol Hauriro. The word was taken up and carried by hundreds of voices, whispered to the heights of the galleries, counterpointed with hisses and low, derisive mutterings. “Eventually was to have been on the plains of Labrenum when our armies faced the Ahi. Eventually was to have been the moment you found the Firefarer and persuaded him to our cause. Your promises of purity…of unity…hold no sway for those Pagi mothers now grieving their lost sons and daughters…” spittle laced his lips  “…now scattered in ashes over the grasslands. While the Ahi lick their wounds, reinforce, and no doubt prepare to attack us once again.”

Lino opened his mouth to protest, but was cut short by bleats of indignation blown down from the benches, which rolled and fused and rocked the chamber with sound.

“We propose…” Ol Hauriro continued, “we propose to invite this ‘pretender’ as you style him, this tenant, this lapsed monk of Libarum. That we invite him here to tell us all he knows. And if necessary, to elect him Duke!” His words were punctuated by calls from the crowd, by the catcalls of aproned artisans; the howls of Pagi artists cloaked in the anonymity of the crowd. Were he to have visited their studios in person, Lino had no doubt that they would have cowered and whimpered and fawned before him. A bitter rush of bile plugged his throat. These Pagi whose attentions he’d courted, for whom he’d sacrificed so much. Mired in their own politics, in their feuds and quarrels, they were blind to the real enemies within – the Ruach – and without – the Ahi. Now, the former disposed of, he had led them to unite against the latter. One defeat, just one, and their resolve had crumbled, and with it their loyalty.

“So invite him,” he said, his voice cracking with suppressed anger.

Ol Hauriro nodded his bull’s head in triumph. “We will.”

“At least we might find out whether he came honestly by the seal…and if,” Lino licked dry lips, “if he knows the whereabouts of Andretta.”

“And as for your electorate…” Sybilla Ol Lauro was already settling into her Uncle’s throne. Lino considered her, as a collector of rare butterflies might consider a fine specimen before pinning it to a board. To challenge him, she must be confident of her cause…or ignorant. Vain, perhaps, as Simone had been, veiling his decrepitude behind an illusion of youth and beauty. Perhaps she too was an ancient hag hiding behind an exquisite mask.

“What of it?” The chamber had quietened; his voice sliced through the still air.

“Well…” perhaps regretting her boldness, Ol Lauro’s laughter chimed like a fine peal of bells. “…Well after such a defeat, Ol Terenzo, after such…failure. There are those who might question your own capacity to govern.

The Kolegio fell as silent as a crypt. Their fear simmered; he sense it on the fringes of his consciousness. It gave him strength. And in an instant, he caught and held an impression of his own power, of his own potency stretching out for years to come. It were as if the future might be his to claim alone: a virgin territory ripe for conquering.

“You are right, Sybilla,” he said.

She smiled, inclining her head graciously.

“As are all those who would wonder at my apparent pride after such…such calamity.”

Ol Diacomo shifted warily on his throne. “You wear your humility like a change of clothes, I fear.”

“It is not so!” he shook his head, rising to pace the floor, shading his face with a shaking hand. Perceived through tear-glazed eyes, the chamber was a blur of light and shade. “In fact, the burden of my own failure has weighed upon me like a stone around my neck these last months. I dream, my friends. I dream of release from it.”

Ol Hauriro rubbed a fleshy hand across his jaw. “If release is what you seek…”

“Do you doubt it?”

If it is what you seek, there is only one way. A public declaration of penitence in the forum…and the submission of your electorate.”

He stared at them, dragging his palm across his eyes, freeing them of tears. “A public declaration, you say?”

Ol Hauriro nodded. “That is the law.”

“Here, before the Kolegio?” His voice shook and cracked.

“From its steps. And the renunciation of your keys to the electorate.”

“Of…my…keys. Spirits!” His howl was plaintive and hollow. “I see…I understand…that in spite of all my years of service for the good of the Pagi…you no longer think me fit for the role of elector.” The words frothed and spilled from Lino’s lips. “And that is your right. I will…a day from now…I will perform my penance. And offer up the keys.”

He crumpled, sinking back into the throne. Reduced to almost childish sobs, Lino covered his face with his hands.

The electors were rising, the chamber shocked into feverish, frenzied uproar, his name thrown about the Kolegio amid cheers…and cries of protest.

Ol Hauriro’s heavy, paw-like hand rested on his shoulder for a brief moment. “It is for the best, Lino. It is the right decision.”

He nodded, his face still hidden behind clasped hands, his chest heaving with grief.

The fools.


Cover picture Darcy Lawrey

Review: Survival Instincts by May Dawney


Given the fact that the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ are currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight; given the constant barrage of media reports on climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and rising geopolitical tensions, it’s perhaps not surprising that dystopian fiction keys into some of our deepest collective fears. How might we function in a world without technology – or an excess of it? Will we be able to resist the political extremes of totalitarianism or anarchy? What happens to us if, stripped of our humanity, we’re forced to fall back on our most primitive instincts, with the survival of one meaning the destruction of others?

This last question is what haunts May Dawney’s novel, Survival Instincts. War has ravaged the planet: humanity has all but obliterated itself. Only a few survivors eke out an existence either as ‘wilders’, relying on their own wits and skills to hunt and fend for themselves, or in defensive communities and homesteads.

Lynn Tanner is a wilder: a woman who has learned the hard  way that she can rely on no one but herself. She makes her way across the scarred landscape which was once New York State, scavenging and searching for hideouts, preying on wild animals for food and being preyed upon in turn by wolves, bears and other predators.

Lynn is forced to question her own values and instincts, however, when she is taken prisoner by a group of homesteaders and tasked with a quest which could well lead to her death. Accompanied by Dani, a hunter for the community, and her dog Skeever, Lynn finds herself suddenly forced into a position of trust, and experiences emotions which challenge her entire sense of who she is and whether there might be more to life than mere survival.

This is a gripping, beautifully written and uncompromising story which asks significant questions about how people might function when deprived of even the most basic comforts. Dani and Lynn’s unfolding relationship is perfectly paced, as the two women are beset by issues of trust and yet somehow start to believe that love might be more than just a luxury; it could imbue their lives with real meaning. It’s a story which confronts the daily grind of survival in a realistic way, and it does what all good speculative fiction should – it leaves you thinking long after you’ve read the final page about how we would function in such a future, and how distanced we really are from it.

Survival Instincts is simply an exceptional read, and a book which stays with you long after you’ve finished it. Highly recommended.

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a novel which confronts the legacy of slavery head on, tracing the lives of generations of Ghanaians and Americans who live, consciously or not, in its shadow.

The story opens in the eighteenth century with the arrival of British traders to west Africa, who manipulate tribal antagonisms in order to further their aim of capturing and transporting local people across the Atlantic. Half-sisters Effia and Esi are caught up in the violence and trauma of this experience: Effia marrying one of the slave traders, while Esi is put on board a slave ship and taken to the United States. The novel follows the lives of their descendants up to the present day; their lives transformed by colonisation and by segregation; by casual hatreds and prejudices, but also through solidarity and love.

Gyasi’s prose style is delicately poised and detached, serving to emphasise the horrors that her characters are forced to endure. As each generation dreams of a better life for their children, reductionist narratives of race and skin colour serve to impose apparently insurmountable limitations. Yet this is also a story of healing – of homegoing – of roots first ripped out but ultimately replanted. It is, therefore, against all the odds a tale of hope.

Anger simmers beneath the delicate prose of Homegoing. But at the same time, it is an extraordinarily compassionate book, and a novel which subtly picks apart its complex subject material. A must read.