The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

TMaMHbyIHG

I do not usually buy books new or buy them soon after they are published, but this was an exception. I felt like this book would be a five-star read for me, so I made a point to buy it quickly. It sounded magical, Gothic, and character driven, which are all things that I love in books and in historical fiction in particular. It was also short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So, you know, that must mean something for a debut author… The good news is that I was not disappointed by my assumptions about the book, but the bad news is that it fell slightly short of my five-star expectations.

Mr. Hancock is a merchant from a wealthy family, but as of late, his luck and wealth has taken a bit of a turn. He has not heard from one of his ship’s captains for quite some time. He is worried that the ship might be lost because that stroke of bad luck would cripple him and his family. When the captain shows up without a ship but with some exotic cargo, Mr. Hancock is not quite sure how to proceed. Angelica Neal was a rather famous prostitute, but she found a man to keep her. Unfortunately, that man died, leaving Angelica to fend for herself once again. Mr. Hancock’s special cargo brings he and Angelica together, but they come from vastly different lifestyles. Can the two of them find any common ground when it seems everyone else is against them?

I was correct that this was a character-driven novel. It is a slow, slow burn, which could easily turn many people off. Thankfully, the characters are quite well written, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Mr. Hancock is a rather simple, honest, and innocent man, but he is still imperfect in some ways. Angelica is at times grating with her expensive, luxurious tastes and ill judgement, but by the end, I warmed up to her. Angelica may seem superficial, but in reality, she is a complex character that evolves throughout the novel with her discovery of her true self. Admittedly, I do not think that the other characters grow and change as much as Angelica. There are a handful of other important characters like Angelica’s cold assistant, Mrs. Frost, and Mr. Hancock’s niece, Susanna (Sukie). They are all well constructed and realistic, but if you do not like the characters, you may dislike the novel as a whole.

The author’s writing is very descriptive but not overly embellished. I had hoped that the writing would be a little more lyrical, but it was still very good. There’s a reason that this book has earned some acclaim. One gripe some readers might have is that it isn’t really a very fantastical novel. When the title says mermaid, you expect a mermaid. I expected a bit more magical realism, but there really wasn’t much magic or much “mermaid” in the novel. Don’t go in expected to see Ariel from The Little Mermaid is all I’m saying!

If you expect magic and traditional mermaids, I would advise you to adjust your expectations slightly but not give up on reading the novel entirely. This is simply more of a literary, historical novel than magical realism or a fairy tale retelling. If you love getting to know characters very well, enjoy a well-described historical atmosphere, and like just the lightest touch of magic, you will likely enjoy The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock as much as I did. Four stars!

The Incarnations

TIbySB.png

I have barely been reading lately, and I hate it. I apologize for missing a few weeks of reviews. I started a new job, and it has been occupying a lot of my time. But you’re not here to read about all of that, are you?

The Incarnations follows a man who has a not-so-great job. Beijing taxi driver, Wang Jun, lives a dull, modest life with his wife and daughter. One day Driver Wang finds a letter in his taxi from someone who knows all about his life. The letter almost sounds like the writer is stalking him. Driver Wang keeps the letter to himself, but more and more letters find their way to him. The mysterious writer claims to know Wang from their previous lives. The letters go into great detail about who Wang was in his past lives, and they begin to urge Wang to leave his wife. Wang feels himself drawn to the letter writer, but the writer is convinced that Wang is his/her true love.

My favorite thing about this book was its writing. The novel takes place right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The descriptions of Beijing as it prepares to host an international competition are claustrophobic, dirty, frantic, and at times dystopian. Quite a few scenes also take place in China’s past via Wang’s reading of the mysterious letters. The author describes the cruelty, poverty, and riches of past eras just as well as she details modern Beijing. The novel includes many nods to true historical events and people, but it also includes some folklore and mythology.

The characters are well-rounded for the most part, but the characters from the historical sections feel a bit more flat and fairy-tale like. We are led to believe that certain characters are Wang’s past selves, but they do not always feel like present-day Wang. Perhaps the historical characters give insight to parts of Wang’s inner self that he represses, but there is a chance that Wang or the letter writer are unreliable narrators, which adds another layer to the story.

The plot of the book had a lot of promise, but in the end, it did not satisfy my expectations. The historical sections did not feel like they meshed well with the modern parts. Despite how prevalent the historical portions were, they did not feel like they had much impact on the overall plot. Perhaps if there was more of an echo of repeated events and character actions between the past and present sections, the novel as a whole might feel more cohesive. I also felt like the novel ended too soon. I am very interested in knowing the outcome of some of the ending events.

This is a book that definitely gives you a lot to think about. It might even be a solid book club selection. The plot, historical facts, folklore, and daily life in Beijing make it a smart and expansive novel, but the execution could have been slightly tighter. I gave The Incarnations 3/5 stars.