‘Asymmetry’ was a delightful surprise – I went into it knowing little except that Lisa Halliday had based part of it on her relationship with Philip Roth many years ago – but it transcended this. I loved it, kept thinking about it afterwards and have been recommending it to everyone!
It’s a novel in three parts, connected by themes and motifs – like different movements of the same piece of music, it feels coherent.
In the first part, Alice has a relationship with a much older, famous writer, Ezra. The second part is the story of Amar, an Iraqi-American economist on his way to find his brother in Iraq, detained at Heathrow airport while the officers make ‘general enquiries’. Amar looks back on his life, with some parallels to the first story: the US invasion of Iraq, religion (Ezra is atheist, Amar is quietly religious); sleeping on the roof (something both Alice and Amar do in hot weather), music, hospital (Ezra visits hospital as an old man, Amar works in a children’s hospital) and others.
In the third section ‘Coda’, we hear about Ezra’s life and philosophy in a comical scene, as he is interviewed for BBC’s Desert Island Discs. I found his flirtation with the presenter laugh-out-loud funny, but I loved that in the #MeToo context this could also be an uncomfortable read. Either way, it opens up much to discuss.
I loved the fresh writing – it’s skilful and considered but not overdone. Halliday has a natural style and wears her intelligence lightly. She has spoken of trying to attain a lightness or leggerezza as Italo Calvino refers to it and I think this shows – there are many ideas at work, and much to read between the lines, which makes it a rich and rewarding read, but it’s done with a light touch. And most importantly, it’s a good, entertaining story.
The characters are firmly drawn. I loved that Alice has agency though she is young and inexperienced: Ezra is a flawed, magnetic charmer, but he does not overtake the story – they bounce off each other. There is a delightful tone and real affection in their scenes, but also the frustrations and odd problems of a relationship with a much older man. It is an intimate story and mostly takes place in Ezra’s apartment. I loved the small details that make you feel like a fly on the wall, for example Ezra asking Alice to stop at Zabar’s on her way to his apartment, to pick up his Mylanta.
Ezra is also a mentor for Alice and there is a lovely, unforced dialogue between them about what a novel should be about. Alice asks if it should be about ‘the important things … war, dictatorships, world affairs.’ Ezra says it is more important that it be well-written.
It ends beautiful poised, with Alice starting to think about her future.
I started the second part with some trepidation, expecting a bleak refugee story. But Amar is friendly and straightforward, and a strangely calming character to spend time with. The scene where he is detained is skillfully done: you emplathise with him immediately and feel he’s been unfairly singled out – but it’s a nuanced portrayal of border security and Halliday doesn’t demonise the officers themselves (at one point, Amar starts to feel ‘filial affection’ for Denise, who has been back and forth with his passport).
The assured writing about his time in Baghdad, London and America brings to life his unique story – but there are also ‘everyday human’ aspects which have parallels with Alice, like sleeping on the roof in summer.
At first glance the stories are unrelated but the switch to Amar’s story does not jar – why not?
To me, the stories feel connected. (Even if they did not, all three sections are so accomplished that they would be a joy to read on their own merits.)
They’re set in a similar time (the 2000s); Alice and Amar are a similar age and grew up in America. There is a sense of two people who are both ‘young Americans’ living through the Bush era but whose stories differ. Both are ‘on hold’: Alice, because of her relationship with Ezra – when asked if she plans to have children, she cannot contemplate it while she’s with him – and Amar literally in a waiting room. Both conduct themselves with a calm quiet and dignity.
The stories illustrate that, regardless of backgrounds, humans share similar concerns: what to do about having children; who to love; whether to believe in God (or any faith); family, and music.
There is also a nice (a)symmetry: one story is intimate, a couple in an apartment ordering take-away, the other about America at war with Iraq. The two stories side-by-side make you think: the war does put things into perspective – for example, there is a comment about people squandering peace, shopping at Waitrose – but the ‘smaller’ story holds its own. To me this question of whether art should be about the smaller stories or world affairs, is the key to the novel. Halliday leaves it open for the reader to form their own view.
The ‘Coda’ at the end is delightful, poignant and self-aware – and a reminder that we are all heading towards death in the end. Ezra – someone who fully participates in life – is flirting right to the end. He also refers back to the discussion he had with Alice about novels and writing and reveals more about the links between the two (blink and you’ll miss it) – but even without this, the stories felt coherent to me.
A beautiful book – a joy to read, engaging and it make me think.