Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: A novel in three parts

Cover imageI suspect Lisa Halliday’s debut is a Marmite book. It depends on whether you’re happy with the idea of a novel which encompasses two discrete narratives rounded off with a brief final section in which neither is overtly brought together or not. Bear with me, this is a tricky book to write about but if I wasn’t hugely impressed by it I wouldn’t even be trying. Perhaps it’s best to think of Asymmetry as a meditation on the state of the world wrapped up in two absorbing stories.

Set in 2003 shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the first of Halliday’s three narratives sees Alice sitting outside trying to read a book and wondering if she’ll ever write one herself. She’s joined by a stranger, a man much older than her, who she recognises. He’s the celebrated author, Ezra Blazer, and she’s an editorial assistant. These two begin an affair which lasts several years in which Alice visits Ezra daily, holidays at his island retreat and occasionally plays nursemaid. Alice continues to live frugally in her tiny flat, slightly embarrassed by Ezra’s fits of largesse. One night when Ezra is beset by chest pains, unable to reach the best heart man in New York, she takes him to the ER where he glimpses real life.

The second section takes us to Heathrow in 2008 where an Iraqi-American economist with dual nationality is detained by the border authorities. Amar is on his way from Los Angeles to Iraq to see his brother, planning to spend several days with an old journalist friend in London before continuing his journey. Caught up in the limbo of detention with little in the way of communication from officals, Amar muses on his life and the state of the country in which his brother has chosen to live despite its dangers.

The third section is Ezra’s Desert Island Disc interview, recorded on Valentines’ Day in 2011, which ranges freely around his childhood, his army days and his love life.

The word ‘audacious’ is a favourite term for novels which step outside the norm and I’d usually avoid it but this time I think it fits. It is audacious to start your first novel with a fragmented narrative in which a multitude of extracts from other texts are interwoven then switch to an entirely different story which seems to have little to do with the first winding the whole thing up with an interview but somehow it works, and quite resoundingly so. The links that exist between the narratives are thematic: war, religion, politics, power, privilege and the lack of, love and mortality. Sober stuff then, but Halliday lifts the tone of her novel with humour – Ezra’s weakness for puerile jokes is a particular delight – and vivid, intelligent writing. It’s decidedly idiosyncratic, a novel which will make you think hard. This review has hardly done it justice but I hope if you’ve stuck with me so far that you’ll give it a try. Who can resist a book which prefaces its first section with a quote from Martin Gardener’s wonderful The Annotated Alice:

We all lead slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death…

21 thoughts on “Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: A novel in three parts”

    1. Thanks, Cathy. Of all the books on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wishlist this was the one I expected to see on the longlist. Perhaps it’s just too much of a Marmite book.

  1. Ah… think you are right about the marmite effect, I was pondering it because of the structure & saw a review that, now having read yours, was rather harsh and a tad misleading (but by their own confession hadn’t finished it); trusting your judgement Susan I’ll definitely put it back on the wish list, I like fragmented and audacity… and especially any stories lifted with humour. Thank you for steering me back to it

  2. I read this a few weeks ago. It’s a real one-off but (perhaps because I’m a lover of Marmite) I was impressed. Having said that, I enjoyed the first half over the second, though the whole thing was pretty good!

    1. It certainly is. Lots of literary pyrotechnics in the first few pages which usually puts me off but Halliday manages to carry it all off so well. I wonder what she’ll do next.

  3. I just wrote about Asymmetry, too. I really, really liked it. It’ll definitely be a re-read for me. Had lots of nuance, tons of subtlety, and I’m convinced the connections between story 1 and story 2 were more prevalent than I thought they were. Would love to go back in and see if I can figure it out. (Or maybe there’s nothing haha)

    Great review. I hope more people get to read this book. It’s wonderful.

    If you’re curious about my (albeit brief) thoughts:

    1. Thank you, and I’m delighted you also think it’s great. I’m sure it would repay a second reading. Interesting to see that you agree with Paula who commented that she preferred the first section. Like you, I kept expecting the two narratives to overlap in some way but in the end it seemed to me that the links were thematic. I like the way that Ezra wa brought face to face with the real world although it didn’t seem to leave much of a lasting impression.

  4. You had me convinced to put it on my list at this sentence: “Perhaps it’s best to think of Asymmetry as a meditation on the state of the world wrapped up in two absorbing stories.” And then you went on to intrigue me even more with your review. I love it when writers take chances that work!

  5. It is, perhaps, the mark of an interesting writer that their first publication is such an audacious read, with such a complex but fascinating structure. I love how your review conveys a sense of how hard it is to articulate both the strengths and the structure of the book. Often I find the books I struggle most to articulate my feelings about are the ones that stay with me the most. Lovely review, Susan. I may well look this one up. Thanks!

  6. I’m looking forward to this one. I like the idea of the echoes between fragments. There was rather a lengthy interview on The New York Review podcast if you’re keen….

    1. Thanks – I’ll look that up. Rebecca’s comment led me to an interview in The Atlantic which suggested a link via Philip Roth. Not something I would have known without having it explained to me.

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