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

Two top-notch debut novels tackle sexual power imbalances, one in Georgian London, the other in modern-day New York

“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 ...