‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday consists of two seemingly unrelated stories which are eventually revealed to have surprising connections. The first part, ‘Folly’, concerns Alice, an editorial assistant in her twenties living in post 9/11 New York City who begins a relationship with a much older man, a Jewish author named Ezra Blazer who has repeatedly been overlooked for a Nobel Prize for Literature. In the second part, ‘Madness’, an Iraqi-American economist, Amar Jaafari, is on his way to Kurdistan to visit his brother but is detained by immigration officials at Heathrow Airport.
This book grew on me a lot – I didn’t enjoy the first part very much as it came across as rather pretentious and not very original. Halliday herself has said that it is essentially a thinly veiled memoir based on her relationship with Philip Roth when she worked as an editorial assistant in the 1990s and this admission doesn’t help dispel the widely held view that debut novelists are only capable of writing about their own lived experiences. However, the second story is strikingly different, and much wider in scope and setting as Amar reflects on his life on different continents. The shorter third part in which Ezra Blazer is interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is very clever indeed – the tone of the interview, specifically the unmistakable voice of Kirsty Young as the unnamed host, is absolutely spot on, and the reader is finally given some possible clues about how the first two parts could be linked. We also get to see Ezra in a slightly different light, rather than from Alice’s perspective.
As the title suggests, the structure is very unbalanced and I suspect the critical reception for Halliday’s debut will be mixed too. The connections between the stories are mostly hinted at rather than made explicit which means ‘Asymmetry’ is frustratingly vague for the most part and I think the full effect of what Halliday achieves here would only be visible after several close readings. For me, the rewards for the reader are all weighted towards the end and will probably come a little too late for those who are less captivated by the beginning, although other readers may have the opposite experience and prefer the first half. However, I think ‘Asymmetry’ is a book that is worth persisting with for those who are prepared for some perplexing literary trickery. The contrast in styles showcases Halliday’s wide range and makes for an impressive debut novel overall in its own unique and disorientating way. Many thanks to Granta for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.