Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

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Reviewed by Harriet

Asymmetry is defined as ‘lack of equality or equivalence between parts’, a definition that applies both to a theme of this brilliant debut novel and to its structure. As anyone who’s read a review of the book will know, it’s divided into three parts, the first two of which appear to be wholly unrelated. Only in the short third part comes a clue to what their relationship might be. Does this make Asymmtetry difficult or challenging to read? Not at all – I whizzed through it with enormous pleasure despite (or because of?) the disparity in tone and subject matter.

The first section of the novel, told in the third person, is the story of a young woman, Mary-Alice, an aspiring writer in her twenties who works as a publisher’s editor. As the story begins she is sitting in the park with a book when she is picked up by a much older man who turns out to be a famous novelist. She is twenty-five, Ezra Blazer is in his seventies (asymmetry again,) but a tender and enduring relationship develops between them. He gives her books to read, they watch baseball together, he pays for clothes for her and later pays off her student loan. As his health deteriorates she fetches his meds from the pharmacy and helps administer them. Their relationship, sexual at first, becomes more fraternal but no less loving for that. They never live together but she spends long weekends with him in his country house. A review I read mentioned Weinstein, but this is in no way an abusive relationship: there’s enormous respect, tenderness, love, equally shared between these two disparate people. 

Part One is titled Folly; Part Two is titled Madness. It’s told in the first person by Amar Jaafari, a young man of Iraqi extraction who has been brought up in the US. Actually born on a plane, he has dual nationality, though he speaks very little Arabic. He’s just finished a PhD in economics and as the story begins he’s on his way to visit his brother Sami, a doctor, who has moved back to live in Iraq with his wife and children. Whether he’s actually going to get there is questionable, as he’s been detained at Heathrow by immigration officials, who keep him there for days asking him the same questions over and over again. As he waits he muses on his past, his upbringing, his relationship with his Arabic identity. Bad things have happened to members of his Iraqi family, and he’s not even sure of Sami’s continuing existence. Amar’s voice and his interior thoughts are entirely convincing, an impressive feat for Halliday and, within the world of the novel, for Alice, whose book, we learn in Part Three, this is.

And what of Part Three? This is a transcript: Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs. If we’ve been impressed by Halliday’s ventriloquism in Part Two, here’s another example of it – she reproduces Sue Lawley’s voice and methodology perfectly. It’s good to hear Ezra’s perspective, having seen him only through Alice’s eyes up to now. Although some years have presumably passed since the events of Part One, in which his health seemed to be deteriorating seriously, he sounds strong and confident here. He has interesting things to say about the ‘madness’ of the world, from which success and privilege keeps one at a distance from until suddenly ‘we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness’. This, he says, is the themes of the ‘rather surprising little novel’ written by ‘a young friend of mine’:

About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface seems to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, he privilege, her naiveté.

In Folly we left Alice and Ezra in a hospital room, where he is asking her not to leave him. ‘No-one could love you as much as I do. Choose this. Choose the adventure, Alice. This is the adventure. This is the misadventure. This is living’. We have to wait for Part Three to discover what happened next. 

Hugely enjoyable, moving and thought-provoking. Please read it.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. 

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (Granta, 2018). 978-1783783601, 272pp., hardback.

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