Bailey's Prize, books, Debut Novel, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gowar and “Sight” by Jessie Greengrass

“A loss is not a void.
          A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives.”

Among the many treasures on the Women’s Prize Longlist this year, two absolute gems – debuts of gorgeous polish and poise, with mold-shattering feminist protagonists one can’t help but love – are Imogen Hermes Gowar’s “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” and Jessie Greengrass’s “Sight”. Both books were unquestionably five-star reads for me and, I assume, for the Women’s Prize panel which put them through to the Shortlist of 6. Though my American readers will either have to be patient or do what I did and order their books from overseas (both titles are released in the US this Fall), any book lover would be remiss in leaving these novels off of her must-read list.


Set in the late 1780s in the working class world of merchant Deptford, on the outskirts of London, and the high class world of elite brothels, “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is simultaneously an old-fashioned novel of the style of Henry James and Jane Austen and a delightfully, unflinchingly modern novel in its willingness to adopt classical euphemisms while describing sex and scandal with naughty details and unabashed glee.

Jonah Hancock, a widower and lifelong merchant, finds himself in possession of a questionable treasure; a captain has sold one of Hancock’s ships in order to procure the twisted, monstrous body of what he claims is a mermaid. Hancock is a rather dull, habitual man, unaccustomed to and unprepared for publicity or society.

“He is a man well designed for his station in the world: a merchant son of a merchant’s son – a son of Deptford – whose place is not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth, scratch down their names and numbers, and send them on to the bright and exuberant city across the river. The ships he sends out into the world – the Eagle, the Calliope, the Lorenzo – cross and re-cross the globe, but Jonah Hancock himself, the stillest of men, falls asleep each night in the room in which he first drew breath.”

Unsure how to monetize his new ‘treasure’, Hancock is approached by Bet Chappell, a leading madam in the brothel scene, who offers to rent the mermaid as a center-piece for a series of lavish (and orgiastic) Bacchanals.

“‘Dear sir!’ she says. ‘Delighted, delighted.’ He does not like procuresses – women debauched in their own youth who usher the next generation to the same fate – but he is relieved that his mermaid’s entrée into high society has been overseen by an expert. She has launched numberless girls into their glittering careers: she can be assumed to manage the same for his wizened freak.”

It is at Chappell’s establishment that Hancock meets the captivating Angelica Neal, a well-known and sought after courtesan.

“She is twenty-seven and still beautiful, which owes something to luck and something to circumstance and something to good sense. Her bright blue eyes and voluptuous smile are gifts of Nature; her body and mind are unmarked by the toils she might have known as a wife; her skin is clear, her grot fragrant, and her nose still whole thanks to the little pouches of sheep gut she keeps in her cabinet, tied with green ribbons and carefully rinsed after each use.”

Gowar’s language is delicious, full of wit, winks, and wonder. The sentence above, which in some hands could be a lurid description of a prostitute’s bodily upkeep through the use of primitive condoms, is as charming and pert as the beribboned picture it conjures. The mix of Georgian imagery and colloquialisms with modern humor and an exquisite narrative gift makes this book as magical a treasure as it’s titular sea creature.

In Jessie Greengrass’s debut “Sight”, our unnamed narrator interweaves her nearly-debilitating inner struggle with the decision on whether or not to become a parent with the story of her mother’s death and with historical narratives of scientific discovery, particularly those which transformed the way we see the world, such as the invention of the x-ray and the moving picture. Though she has no name, the narrator is anything but anonymous; she bares her soul – her undoing by grief, her paralyzing ambivalence about parenthood, and her journey to continue to find and build herself as a woman and a mother and a daughter and a partner.

When her mother dies, our narrator becomes physically ill and is seemingly adrift, left in her mother’s home among her mother’s lifetime of belongings.

“This is where grief is found, in these suddenly unfilled cracks, these responsibilities – minute, habitual – which have lain elsewhere for years and which, having failed amongst grief’s greater broil to be reapportioned, are overlooked in favour of the more dramatic, until even the ordinary starts to crumble. If I thought, all through those freezing months I had spent alone in a house whose owner had abandoned us, that I did not grieve, then it was because I had been expecting something else – something both larger and lesser, a monument or a mountain, simple, scaleable, and not this seeping in of space to undermine the smooth continuance of things. I had thought that loss would be dramatic, that it would be a kind of exercise, when instead it was the emptiness of everything going on as before and nothing working as it ought.”

The speaker’s anguish is always palpable, often contagious. Never before have I encountered such a deep, visceral, and resonant accounting of the ambivalence I personally felt about deciding to become a parent. When she finally comes to a decision with her partner, her sense of calm and relief is nearly tangible; I could feel her heavy-chested sigh.

“I knew that I wanted a child and it was only the point of crossing from the abstract to the particular which was at issue, that gap I saw between myself and the people who were mothers already, my fear of being found wanting, but I was not alone – there was Johannes, strong where I was not, and after all we were only people and a part of us was made for this, I wouldn’t fail any further than others did; but most of all I had exhausted myself with indecision and was too tired for any more of it. I wanted to think about something else. I wanted the whole thing to be over and done, and the only way for that to happen was for me to do that thing which I had wanted from the start.”

Greengrass writes with such knowing and poise, shaping a novel that is painfully intimate whether it is featuring the inner-most thoughts and demons to which even a journal may not be privy, or casting scientific discoveries in a strikingly personal, human light. Reading “Sight” was sometimes cathartic, sometimes cutting. I wanted to curl around it, hold it tight, shush away its wounds and lick my own.

Bailey's Prize, books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“A Boy in Winter” by Rachel Seiffert

“Mykola had stuck with the nervous, the reluctant like himself among the newly recruited, until he’d learned that another man’s fear was nothing to trust in. Give the fearful a knife or a rifle, they will use it; in the midst of the fray, give them a flame, they will lay waste.”

Novelist Rachel Seiffert takes her readers into an eerie, quiet landscape of fear and flight.IMG-0331 It is 1941 and the SS has just invaded a small town in rural Ukraine. As the German soldiers brutally round up and quickly slaughter the area’s Jewish residents, “A Boy in Winter” flits back and forth across the stories of four characters, with two carrying thing majority of the narrative.

There is Otto Pohl, a German engineer tasked with building a road through the area for the Nazis. Pohl is a reluctant participant in the Nazi cause, but he is complicit all the same. His narrative focuses primarily on his inner dialogue, including the things he wishes he could say to his wife to justify his collusion.

It is a road for when this war is over. No more tans will have to roll then. Pohl has told Dorle this, over and over – in his thoughts this time, not in his letters to her: that would be too dangerous. It is for when Hitler loses, as he surely must, my love. Just look at all his over-reaching madness – the man means to conquer Russia now: I ask you! It can only be a matter of time. Still aware of her soreness, and how his letters can do little to soothe it, Pohl has assured her repeatedly – even if only inwardly – that he has come to build a road here, good and broad, and fit for civilians. Fit for civilisation, not some thousand-year abomination. And even if he’d sooner tell her in person, it has still eased him to say these things.”

There is also Yasia, a young woman from the farmlands who has come closer to town seeking to reclaim her lover from German recruiters. Finally there are Ephraim, a father rounded up with his fellow Jews, and Yankel, a young boy with a superhuman will to survive.

          “There are a dozen SS around him – hounding him, hounding his mother – and there are still others beyond them: they seem to fill the small town’s streets and alleyways. So many more than he thought; the schoolmaster had not anticipated even nearly so large a force. But now he is run past whole packs of soldiers, of policemen crowded at the corners, standing wide-legged at the house doors and pounding.
          If he had only known this.
          That soldiers would come hauling people out of their houses.
          That police would come looking in such numbers. For any who refused to comply with the instruction.”

Unlike most World War II era/holocaust atrocity-centered stories I’ve read, “A Boy in Winter” deals more with the impact on the people and places ‘incidental’ to the invasion, rather than focusing expressly on its most obvious victims. In some sense, this novel felt a bit like the embodiment of the Martin Niemöller quote “First they came for the socialists…”. Seiffert is exploring the roles of the towns and villages invaded by the Nazis, unpacking the part so many played as they backed into a corner, averted their eyes, and felt compelled to save themselves and not risk standing up for their neighbors. “A Boy in Winter” is a novel about guilt, but also about hope. It is about those extraordinary few who couldn’t bear to turn away, whose human instincts won out over fear and self-preservation.

“A Boy in Winter” is written in cold, simplistic language; it is awash in grays. I haven’t read anything else by Seiffert, so I cannot speak to whether or not this is her typical ‘voice’, but I can say that in my mind, it was exactly the right tone for a story of cold despair, of shuttered doors and cloaked neighbors, and of ultimate terror.