One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.
As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.
Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “Social commentary stiffens the sinews of this text like whalebone: great questions, such as how women existed without feminism, wrapped up by the sisterhood in voluble debate, rolled out in priceless diversions. Their voices, Gowar’s prose, the audible hallmark of her sterling work. She has the just phrase for every mood in this mercurial world, from the adjectivally plush to the lyrically spare. A language which speaks of nightmare underworld as fluently as dreams above.”
Where did the idea for your debut novel come from?
I got back into writing as an adult while I was working at the British Museum, and I’d quite often choose an object on display and try to write a piece of flash fiction about it. It almost felt like ‘listening’ – to myself, I suppose, rather than the object – and it was a good exercise in terms of teaching myself to clear my mind, and write quickly and empathetically. The British Museum really does have a mermaid in its collection: standing in front of it, wondering who would have owned it and what they would have thought of it, I was suddenly joined by the characters of Mr Hancock and Angelica Neal.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?
Wonderful, of course! It’s a prize I’ve always really admired for championing acute, intelligent, original literature. It was lovely to be able to tell my grandfather about my longlisting before he died.
What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?
Guarding the time and space for it, I think. It’s really easy to let writing regularly fall down your list of priorities; it can feel like a terrible indulgence especially when you are only doing it for yourself with no editor or readership waiting for the finished product. I didn’t know whether the manuscript would ever go anywhere, but I was sure I’d be so unhappy and thwarted if I didn’t at least know I’d done my best. I had quite an ascetic, tunnel-vision life while I worked on it, which wasn’t always pleasant but I was lucky to be able to choose it. I couldn’t have pulled so many all-nighters if I’d have kids to care for or a mortgage to pay.
What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Just keep going. Don’t compare your project, your method or your timeframe to what other people are doing. Do the best you can do at the given time, but never beat yourself up. I guess it’s about doing yourself and your idea justice, so you do need to be your own cheerleader.
What is your favourite debut novel of all time?
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes.