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Friday, 18 January 2013

Book Review: Elijah's Mermaid by Essie Fox

Having read The Somnambulist by Fox last year (review here), I was delighted to receive a review copy of Elijah's Mermaid from the publisher. Fox's second novel more than lives up to the promise of the first, so much so that I read the final third in one huge gulp, unable to sleep without finishing it.

The novel has two interconnecting strands. Web-toed Pearl was found in the Thames as a baby and subsequently brought up in the House of the Mermaids, a brothel under the direction of Mrs Hibbert with the menacing presence of Tip Thomas nearby. Protected until the age of fourteen, she then realises she's been protected simply to be sold to the highest bidder. This turns out to be Osborne Black, an artist obsessed with mermaids in search of a muse. Meanwhile, Lily and Elijah Lamb were twins deposited at the Foundling Hospital and finally reunited with their grandfather via the intervention of publisher Frederick Hall. However, a trip to London and a chance meeting with Pearl changes Elijah. Soon he receives an offer he can't refuse and moves to London, leaving Lily anxiously waiting for his letters.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Elijah's Mermaid are the various settings which spring to life on the page. The brothel is one such setting but my personal favourite was Dolphin House, Black's home, where you can almost smell the damp seeping from the book. There's an appendix included where you can read about the inspiration for the settings which was a great idea.

Story-wise, I think the novel was flawless. Although some of the twists I anticipated, many I didn't and, anyway, it was wonderful to sit back and let the story unfold. Lily and Pearl are two contrasting heroines, with different knowledge about the world, and these differing viewpoints help keep the novel interesting. One of the most memorable characters, however, isn't even human - I'll let you discover that one by yourselves.

The thing that makes Elijah's Mermaid so compelling is probably the drift between respectability and the Victorian underclass. The two merge tantalisingly at times and it certainly helps to make the novel fascinating, especially to someone as interested in the period as I am. Above all, however, this book is an excellent story with twists and turns galore. Definitely worth a read, whether you're fascinated by the Victorian period or not.

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