I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate fiction by women. The literary community has been talking for years about how fiction written by men is taken more seriously; the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts count proves that men are reviewed more often than women and are also doing more of the reviewing.
Nicola Griffith, author of the enthralling historical novel Hild, did a study of her own a few years ago, looking at books that had won major British and American fiction awards and pointing out that it isn’t only the gender of the author we should be looking at, but also the gender of the main character. Men writing about male characters took home the most prizes, followed by women writing about male characters, with women writing about female characters bringing up the rear. The Pulitzer Prize was the worst, awarding not a single woman writing about a female character—or even a man writing about a female character—between 2000 and 2015. (The Newbery Medal was a notable exception to this female desert.) I couldn’t have been happier when Hilary Mantel won two Man Booker Prizes for her novels about Thomas Cromwell—but how about a prize for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Ali Smith, or Zadie Smith, or Sarah Waters?
Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry, is the perfect book to read in this context. It’s a deep exploration of storytelling and literary ambition and who gets to tell what stories and why. The first section is about a young woman who works in publishing and seems to be somewhat autobiographical, but it’s told in a distancing third-person, and we don’t learn much about the character’s thoughts. The second section has a first-person narrator who couldn’t seem more different than Halliday: He’s an Iraqi-American man being held by immigration officials at Heathrow. In a brief third section, our assumptions are upended in a way that will get you thinking about these issues in new ways—and may make you turn back to the first page and start reading all over again. Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.