I 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…