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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar; Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday – review

New York city
New York city, where Lisa Halliday’s wonderful puzzle Asymmetry is set. Photograph: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

“I’m a rich man. I have a right to rare things.” In The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, merchant Jonah Hancock is thinking of Angelica, the most splendid courtesan in Georgian London, but his sentiment could also serve as the tacit motto of Ezra Blazer, the renowned author in Asymmetry, as he sets his sights on youthful editor Alice in early 00s New York. While poles apart in style – one enchants, the other eviscerates – both of these much-heralded debuts delve into power imbalances with an implacability fit for our time.

If the supernatural siren in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock seems to suggest twee fantasy, Imogen Hermes Gowar brings a lustrous realism to her panorama of London’s stinking docks and chintzy bordellos. Our leading lady is the irresistible Angelica Neal, a “haughty whore of the first water” who draws glances from other women’s husbands wherever she turns. After falling for a handsome aristocrat, Angelica is too moonstruck to notice he is insolvent and her bill for luxury bonbons has gone unpaid. When her naive foray into monogamous romance almost leads to ruin, her exasperated assistant insists she strike a clearer bargain with suitors in future. Angelica finds an unlikely rescuer in a besotted Deptford merchant who made his fortune by exhibiting a dubious “mermaid” carcass brought back on one of his ships.

Imogen Hermes Gowar
Imogen Hermes Gowar: ‘[Her] prose shimmers like the titular temptress.’ Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

With an eye for the calculations and compromises economic necessity thrusts upon women, Gowar ensures that comfortable matrimony provides no fairytale ending. Bowing to Angelica’s droll and swiftly forgotten condition for marriage, Hancock dispatches a ship to find her another mermaid and the captain unexpectedly returns months later with a living one in the hold. Trapped within an underground grotto at their new Greenwich mansion, the creature radiates an unbearable melancholy. Scarcely glimpsed, this mermaid drifts as a metaphor for the sorrow that douses the vitality of the captured female, courtesan or mermaid.

Gowar’s prose shimmers like the titular temptress, but her magnificent stagecraft cannot hide one or two soggy patches in the storytelling. Polly, a mixed-race prostitute, escapes from the “Temple of Venus” after bridling at being treated like a curio. Promising to broaden the theme of disparity beyond gender, it is a shame her storyline trickles out too soon.

Lisa Halliday: ‘wonderfully terse’
Lisa Halliday: ‘wonderfully terse’. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

Lisa Halliday’s wonderfully terse Asymmetry portrays a sexual transaction in more opaque terms. Alice is reading novels in a Manhattan park when Ezra Blazer sits down beside her. A half-century older than Alice, Ezra exerts his seniority during their subsequent affair by doling out wads of cash, sending her on errands and correcting her pronunciation. A literary lion of the interwar generation, Ezra’s real-life counterpart might be Philip Roth, who tended to depict age-gap sexual liaisons from a lusty male perspective (most notably in The Dying Animal). Markedly less enchanted by the imbalances of power within such relationships, Halliday zeroes in on Ezra tightening his grip on Alice, even while he hobbles into a twilight of physical decrepitude.

Asymmetry is constructed like a puzzle box, with three parts that slot together only at the end. Halliday abruptly leaves the muddled Alice behind in favour of a seemingly unrelated second protagonist: Amar Jaafari is an Iraqi-American detained by immigration officials at a London airport. While the Iraq war unfolded on TV screens for Ezra and Alice, Amar contends with harrowing memories of the violence and upheaval that gripped Baghdad after Saddam. Here, Halliday is ingenious at tracing a wider world of disparities nevertheless still dominated by powerful white men. The final part returns to Ezra for a Desert Island Discs interview in the wake of his winning the Nobel prize.

The structural originality of Asymmetry may be startling – divulging the key to how the parts fit together would be remiss – but the story arcs towards a gratifying catharsis. Suffice to say, a fictional Kirsty Young tricks the lascivious Ezra into a more revealing interview than he probably anticipated. Though it is a kick to watch Angelica bamboozle men who treat women like prey or plaything, here we are left with an even more rousing inference that their time could be almost up.

• The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is published by Harvill Secker (£12.74). To order a copy for £11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

• Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday is published by Granta (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

This article titled "The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar; Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday – review" was written by Benjamin Evans, for The Observer on Sunday 11 February 2018 10.00am

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