Saturday 31 August 2019


Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday       {Reviewed by STELLA}
Opening with a bored young woman sitting on a bench in New York — bored with waiting for something to happen, bored with her book and bored with herself — Asymmetry cleverly lets you into a sliver of Alice’s mind. Actually, not even that much. A well-known older writer sits down and starts a conversation — one that finally gets around to his ‘line’. “Are you game?” (A line that later will reappear with hand-clapping irony!) Lisa Halliday’s debut novel riffs on the greats of American modern fiction — the male novelists that is. It’s fairly obvious that our older writer, Ezra Blazer, is based on a somebody or an amalgam of ‘someones’, and it won’t come as a surprise when you discover that Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth when she was in her early twenties. Cue the novel-as-life, life-as-novel moment. Yet Halliday gives us a double (or maybe even a triple) twist in this captivating novel of three parts. Part one — 'Folly' — details Alice’s affair with the older author Blazer. She’s an editorial assistant at a publishing house who is easily won over by the dynamic and controlling Blazer. She’s a willing participant, and although we are never given the last damaging scene — the breakup — we are well aware that the end will come in this affair, one in which Alice is both unhappy (really) but content (sort of) with the money that is lavished on her, the account at the ritzy department store and the crack in the door to a ‘better’ life, which she is sometimes allowed through. In return she will be kind to the ailing writer with his bad back and declining libido, fetch and carry for him as necessary, and listen to his opinions. The text's style here is snappy and wry. While we don’t discover too much about Alice’s internal life, we can enjoy the voyeuristic pleasures of watching through the keyhole, and there are some great sardonic moments — ‘peppercorns’ (piquant and spicy) of literary references and cultural textures (baseball and music). Layered under this ‘folly’ are the machinations of politics and social structures of the 2000s, topics that will come to the fore in part two — 'Madness'. We are suddenly thrown out of Alice’s world into Amar’s. Born on a plane coming to America, he is an American Iraqi. We meet him at border control, in London 2009, en route to Kurdistan (to visit his brother). Not surprisingly, he’s been pulled out of the queue and is answering a long series of questions from Denise, the immigration officer. Between numerous and repetitive questions and waiting in the holding cell, we get close and personal with Amar: his life growing up in the US, his time studying in London, his immediate family and the connections to his relatives in Iraq. Unlike Alice, with Amar Ala Jaafari we are given a full story, childhood, parents and a sibling (Sami), his failed relationship with Maddie (who his younger self scorned for her ambition to be a doctor), and his own academic crisis moving from doctoring to economics. Much of the story centres on his adult years — travelling back to an increasingly dangerous Baghdad with his parents to visit relatives, and his time in London where he becomes friends with a jaded war correspondent. We circle around the politics of the middle east, the American invasion of Kuwait, and the bombing of Baghdad and subsequent war in Iraq. Immersed in Amar’s story, as a reader I was wondering where and how Alice’s life would overlap. How would they meet? What was the connection? Yet the two parts stood separate and disconnected in all ways, aside from some themes that are played out quite differently. While in 'Folly' we are voyeuristic, in 'Madness' we are completely engaged — moved to be involved. Yet Halliday does not leave it there, and the final and brief third part, 'Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs', a recorded interview for BBC radio, gives us the connecting lines so we can join the dots. Asymmetry is an enjoyable and clever novel, one that plays with the idea of the novel and questions the role of the author and imagination. It's a consciously delicious demonstration of fiction.

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