22) Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
This novel was widely praised in 2018, and it’s been on the To Be Read pile for a while Chez Temple. The premise of the book is that it is split into two relatively distinct sections, and then that a third short section helps reveal how these two stories connect and intersect. As the title would suggest, there are a number of asymmetries at play throughout: an asymmetrical relationship (between an older novelist and a younger literary editor), the asymmetrical war in Iraq, and the broader cultural asymmetry of East vs West. And there is also the asymmetry between fiction and non-fiction (spoiler alert, Lisa Halliday had a short relationship with Philip Roth, when there was a significant age difference between them).
The first section concerns that relationship between Mary-Alice and Ezra Blazer, and it’s engaging, adept and wryly funny. It is, in my opinion, by a distance the best part of the book as a whole, and I was pretty gripped by their evolving relationship – the baseball, the physical infirmities, the subterfuge and the dawning realisation of its fragility and flawed nature. It’s all very wittily and successfully done.
We then leap to a tale of an Iraqi-American economist who is being held at immigration at a London airport. This is structured in two interwoven sections – one of him being stuck in immigration and how that develops, and the other being the background and family story. Strangely, the former is actually the more gripping, and the family story unfolds at a slow pace – and, for me, it gets in the way of the more immediate narrative. The section is interesting, but a bit uneven and a bit less satisfying as a result.
Finally, we get the coda, which is basically the transcript of Desert Island Discs with Ezra Blazer – it is clearly Kirsty Young, and it takes a predictably flirty me-too-ish turn. I was also waiting for the ‘reveal’ over the connection between the two preceding sections – and I can only say that it is in blink-and-you-miss-it territory. For that reason, and the slightly heavy-handed transcript, I was left pretty frustrated and unsatisfied as a reader. I won’t ruin or reveal the connection, but suffice to say that it is slight and I’m not sure adds much in terms of understanding or insight.
It is clear that Halliday’s intent is also to mess with our expectations of narrative structure and linear arcs, but that cleverness ends up getting in the way of what are some compelling stories and beautifully drawn characters. I probably also read too many (good) reviews, and got a bit over-excited – and if I had read the first section as a short story on its own, I would probably have been raving about it. So maybe buy it for that, read it and, as I will, watch out for Halliday’s next novel – because there is absolutely no question of her talent.
Score: 6.5/10 (9/10 for the first section)
BUY IT NOW: Asymmetry