‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann

Wow.  A joy of a book.  It’s hard to know where to start when reviewing a book that the New Yorker describes as ‘encyclopedic’ .  Ducks, Newburyport is a 1,020 page novel told (mostly) in a single sentence.   The narrator, an Ohio housewife-turned-baking entrepreneur, muses on everything from stepping on her toddler’s yellow truck to  climate change.

fullsizeoutput_952b

Ellmann uses the refrain ‘the fact that’ as a break, to signal the way our minds jump between thoughts.  The structure of breaking without a full stop resembles the way we are constantly thinking while moving and doing other things.  From time to time the narrator is rolling dough, collecting eggs or delivering pies – without stalling to tell the reader she has moved from A to B.  Without ‘the fact that’ it would read as a single thought process and feel like the narrator was standing still.  And of course it’s a way of establishing her truth or ‘facts’ in an age where facts are questioned.

Running alongside this narrative is the story of a lioness and her cubs living free in Ohio.  We sense that this will connect with the narrator’s story but there is a broader purpose – it reminds us to see the world from a different point of view, including animals (something Robbie Arnott did in Flames) – to give a 360 degree view.  It also ties in with the narrator worrying about animals and threats of extinction – we empathise with the lioness and see the plight of animals more vividly.

Why did I love it?  First, the voice: I enjoyed being in the narrator’s company.  She is shy and anxious – struggling with a teen daughter, Stacy, who seems to hate her and three younger children demanding her attention – but very funny.  And I like that Ellmann is recording the thoughts of a woman who does not think they’re worth telling to anybody (compare with Stacy – a more narcissistic generation).

It is like visiting a friend and sitting in their kitchen while she bakes cinnamon rolls and chats to you.  The conversation runs from everyday concerns to raising teens (Stacy puts a ‘DNR’ sign on her bedroom door) to the pollution of the Ohio River.  The narrator watches old movies and her wry commentary on them is a highlight of the book.

We can relate to the narrator’s worries and insecurities.  She is down on herself (for example, speaking of French philosophy, “What do I know?”).  We want her to gain strength and reach a point of peace or contentment, but in the meantime it’s wonderful to follow her struggles: “with four kids there are only so many poignant moments a mom can keep track of”.  Ellmann captures beautifully the way we talk to ourselves and our fleeting thoughts: “now I’ve forgotten what I came to the pantry for, the fact that I should finish filling the dishwasher first …”.

The writing propels you along.  There is a sense of constant movement and she keeps you guessing, as you have to infer from snippets of her thoughts what the narrator is doing.

It is a great balance of (seemingly) random thoughts, observations and worries, and action – it spans a couple of months, so we move through the day, but also from winter to spring. Ellmann also shows how distracted we are and the absudity of life – the narrator  can be reading a school curriculum one minute and the next minute “Alligator Found in Living Room” flashes up on her screen.

So, on one level it’s a cosy, laugh-out-loud read and nuanced portrait of a mother  working from home in today’s America.  The Virginia Woolf comparisons – as in this Financial Times review – are apt: it’s a brilliant study of an interior life.  She is an ordinary American in sweat pants (“there’s no point in dressing up just to caramelize apples”) and Ellmann shows how a so-called domestic life can be endlessly interesting.  It gives a sense that there are people doing menial jobs all over the world who have rich inner lives.  She is describing something that is often invisible.

But it does more than that.  The narrator worries about the state of America: healthcare, cancer, hurricanes, climate change, gun control, domestic violence, pollution, the extinction of species, the treatment of Native Americans, and teenagers watching beauty videos.  There are a multitude of references to American food, culture and wildlife.  So it becomes a novel about the state of America today and a re-telling of its history (this feels organic, as the narrator used to be a history teacher).

It’s an extraordinary achievement.  Once I realised that this was what Ellmann was doing, I was even more captivated.  It’s so engaging and cleverly done – whirling from one topic to another, but with logical connections.  She uses movies as another way of understanding love, relationships and America.

It is a long book but Ellmann does many things to keep it coherent: the lioness story to indicate the passing of time; the lively writing; and motifs that recur throughout the text (the Ohio River, Little House on the Prairie, her mother, baking, guns, old movies and burial mounds).

I’ve tagged many pages – it’s endlessly quotable.  This one captures some of her thinking on history and her son’s preoccupation with space:

“if you’re lucky you might live long enough to see close-ups of Pluto, and dust devils on Mars, and maybe even some exciting aurora borealises, as well as watching a few crackpot presidents come and go …”

This might be my favourite book of the year so far – highly recommended.  Who is your tip to win the Booker?

 

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

KiJnk7BiQHaD0wzhLir9Ow

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, a modern classic published in 1985 and recently, a hit television series and cultural reference point.  The release of The Testaments on 10 September was hugely anticipated, with a midnight launch and cinema event with Atwood.

Given the significance of The Handmaid’s Tale in a #metoo world, the 34 year wait and Atwood’s status as a bit of an icon, it was a thrill to buy The Testaments on the morning of its release.  I admired The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it some years ago but have not watched the television series – apparently it helps if you have (and The Testaments will be made into its own series).

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is dystopian fiction set in Gilead, a future version of (part of) America.  Many readers asked Atwood over the years what happened to Offred – The Testaments gives a possible answer, but is told not from her point of view but by three other characters: Aunt Lydia (a senior figure at Ardua Hall), Agnes (facing an arranged marriage) and Daisy (living in Canada).

Agnes and Daisy are both teenaged girls, so their sections read like a Young Adult novel.

The plot centres around what happens to Gilead.  Atwood is interested in how totalitarian regimes persist and how they can be dismantled.  As in The Handmaid’s Tale, everything in The Testaments is drawn from real-life events, despite the futuristic tone.

I did not love this book.  I liked it and think it’s a worthy companion to The Handmaid’s Tale: it achieves closure and allows readers a sense of hope (or fantasy) about how Gilead could be brought down, but it did not move me.

It has been short-listed for the Booker Prize but the writing, whilst accomplished, did not bring me joy or feel original in the way that I expect a Booker winner to (compare with Lincoln in the Bardo and Milkman, for example).  On the other hand, I cannot say Margaret Atwood is unoriginal – she is the victim of her own success, since The Handmaid’s Tale spawned many dystopian novels, so that she would have needed to reinvent the genre if she were to stay ahead.

Another reason it feels unoriginal – again no fault of Atwood’s – is that in the Trump era, and with heightened awareness of misogynistic regimes and the plight of refugees across the globe, the things described in The Testaments are already familiar to us (compare with Frankissstein or Our Life in the Forest, where the ideas were new but plausible).

It feels coy in this day and age to hint at totalitarian regimes akin to Yemen, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, and attitudes that Trump has espoused, without naming them.  I had a feeling that it had been stylised (ready for a glossy television adaptation).  That is one issue I have with dystopian fiction – the world-building means that you are at a remove from the real issue.  It can work well, but in The Testaments the world, the colour-coded outfits and the names (such as The Underground Femaleroad) did not bring the issues alive to me in a fresh way.

Also – and this is my preference and no fault of the book – I like reading about these issues through own voices fiction and non-fiction. I’ve read some great books this year: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee about sex slavery; No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani translated by Omid Tofighian (the imprisonment of refugees) and The Buried by Peter Hessler (life in Egypt, including the treatment of women) among others.

There were aspects of The Testaments that I liked: it’s an easy read and does have a sense of hope, or as Annie put it when we discussed it on the podcast, ‘triumph’. I liked Aunt Lydia.  Her section could compare with modern politics – the machinations behind the scenes and political ‘fixers’.  Atwood has spoken of Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s fixer) as an influence for Lydia’s character.  I enjoyed her scenes with Commander Judd – two equals in a battle of wits.

The other characters were not complex or fleshed out, but they are set up nicely to be brought to screen.  I was not invested in them – Agnes seemed bland and Daisy bratty.  The other characters – such as Neil, Melanie, Ada and Garth – seemed like vehicles to tell the story.

I found the plot contrived: it seemed unrealistic that women would hold power (in the way Aunt Lydia does) in a totalitarian regime that resembles Saudi Arabia, Yemen, even the USA under Trump.  The handmaids escaping via the ‘Underground Femaleroad’ was plausible – it made me think of people fleeing persecution in countries like Iran and Iraq, and of Nadia Murad’s perilous journey in The Last Girl – but felt clunky and awkward

It lacked dramatic tension.  The characters plan to do things (such as move, or escape) and then carry out their plans.  Agnes’s escape from her situation felt unlikely and repetitive (as another character has done the same).  The plan to bring down Gilead seemed far-fetched.  Even in the later scenes, I never felt the characters were in peril (perhaps the YA tone contributed to this).

I also had an uncomfortable feeling that it was a book about white people’s problems.  In one scene Aunt Lydia has some ‘Forbidden World Literature’ which comprises a range of white authors.  Banning books and censorship are worrying, but when you consider the number of girls in developing countries who cannot even attend school, Jane Eyre feels less urgent.

Overall, a good read and a gesture of hope and solidarity especially for (white American) women.

 

‘We That Are Young’ by Preti Taneja

It’s exciting to see Galley Beggar Press doing well with Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann shortlisted for the Booker Prize (it’s released here today – I can’t wait to read it!).

This is a belated review of another Galley Beggar title and one of my favourite books of the year so far: We That Are Young.  We met Preti Taneja at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March and interviewed her for the podcast – she was a delight.

fullsizeoutput_820d

We That Are Young is is a modern-day King Lear set in India.  It’s an epic tale – a short review and hyperbole will not do it justice.

I confess I have not read King Lear, nor been to India (although I feel like I’ve spent a week there, so vivid and evocative is the book). It did not matter at all, but Taneja has been faithful to the structure and themes of the play, so if you’re familiar with King Lear you will find even more joy in We That Are Young.

The story follows Devraj, the founder of the Company, who resigns and divides it between his three daughters: Gargi, Radha and Sita – the main sections are told from their point of view.  The story begins with their childhood friend Jivan Singh returning from the US to India, reading an article about the company in the in-flight magazine.  This is an engaging opening, told with a satirical eye, and at the same time cleverly gives us a snapshot of the family.

The characters are strong and memorable.  The sisters are very different – Taneja has spoken of women in epics being cast as ‘crone, whore or saint’ – but we empathise with each in turn.  She shows the experience of women in India and the problems they face, even if wealthy.

Gargi shows the difficulties facing career women, and we see behind her ordered, cool façade.  She deals with sexism from the men in the company: when decisions are to be made, they tell her to ask her husband.  Her story is told through an interview with a magazine.  Taneja juxtaposes the interview with Gargi’s backstory: her answers don’t match the truth.  At the same time, she is poking fun at the superficial questions asked of businesswomen.  When Gargi tells Nina, the journalist, that the company is starting a water salvation program. Nina says: ‘Right.  What is your one secret for absolute wellbeing?’

There are poignant scenes with her father, who critcises Gargi for not having children (“You will never know how much you’ve hurt me tonight.  No barren woman can know how ungrateful children can wound”), reminding me of the attacks on former prime minister Julia Gillard.

Radha devotes her time to her clothes, food, pleasing her husband and social media – she is savvy at knowing what people want.  We find through her past the reason she’s adept at this, but she also reminded me of modern-day influencers and You-Tubers, socially conditioned but clever at exploiting the market too.  Radha is good at hiding from the past.  “If she said such things, she would risk becoming Sita: she would find herself.  Nothing but herself.”  It’s a nuanced portrait.

Sita is kept from her sisters in a safe house.  Her sections take on a nightmareish quality (“The young man nods.  What big ears he has.”).   She is strong but in peril.

“Inhale.  Exhale.  For the eco-warrior-Indian-daughter, there is no such thing as a Duty Free smoke.”

Taneja depicts beautifully the high life of the elites and the desperate poverty of many – it’s so vivid, you can feel the plush hotel rooms, soft fabrics of the pashminas and the champagne bubbles; then we are with Jeet in the dump (basti) trying not to step on sewage. There is a great line when Radha goes outside the hotel: “Radha has not been outside at ground level since they arrived here one whole week ago.”

It’s a novel of contrasts: youth and age, wealth and poverty, India and the West, love and betrayal.  The mix of high and low makes it so engaging.  The scenes are colourful and elevated – the events and characters seem hyper-real.  But it’s also a family story about three sisters and the relationships each has with her father, with sibling rivalries, complicated affections and dark secrets.

The genius of the novel is that we see the family drama play out at the same time as we see, through the eyes of three modern women, the story of India unfold.  The stage is set: kinships, tradition, entrenched hierarchies and sexism, conflict and violence writ large.

I love the humour and ease with which Taneja shifts register – from lyrical prose layered with references to Dante, Shakespeare and Bret Eaton Ellis to deadpan wit.  For example, when Devraj is speaking:

“The crowd clap – none of them seem surprised at this rambling speech.

The writer should be fired – it makes no sense.  The great Devraj has lost it.”

The dialogue is poetic and true to life.  Devraj:

“Look at you, Gargi, a fountain run dry.  You cannot serve a man’s needs.  Radha, as for you?  So fine, so fine.  My God, as if  fine cloth can cover your true nature.  You girls are like two diseased owls … These things you think so beautiful do not cover your stink.”

And Jeet, in a passage that pays homage to Shakespeare but is wonderfully fresh:

“We that believe in India shining … We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global superpower coming soon to a cinema near you .  … we that are young.  We that are jigging on the brink of ruin; we that are washed in the filth of corruption, chal, so what? …”

This speech is incredible: elevated language, English and local dialects – it’s poetry spoken in a storm in a basti.

I highly recommend this novel – one of my best reads of 2019.

What are your best books so far this year?

 

 

 

10 Books by Women in Translation

The wonderful Meytal Radzinski (@biblio and @read_WIT ) started Women in Translation Month – a great prompt  to read more books by women in translation in August each year.  She is compiling a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation: #100BestWIT.  Here are my top ten.

our life in forest

Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq, translated by Penny Hueston

A dystopian tale set in the near-future. The narrator has a clone, or ‘half’ who has lived in a coma and supplied spare body parts when needed – a group and their ‘halves’ are in the forest. Eery, with aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale and Animal Farm, and the mystery of why they’re there and the sinister society they’ve escaped.  Darrieussecq writes with a great sense of humour and a disarming, frank tone which I really enjoyed. Beautifully paced, with a twist near the end.

my brilliant friend

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

A lyrical story of two girls’ friendship in a poor area of 1950s Naples. I loved the strong, flawed characters, sense of place and immersive style.  It’s beautifully translated, especially the dialogue: even reading it in English, I felt like I was in Italy.

suite francaise

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith

This begins with the 1940 exodus from Paris – we see families go from lives of privilege to losing everything under German occupation.  The story moves to a rural village where Lucille and Madeleine are forced to share a house with a German soldier.  I love the elegance of Némirovsky’s writing.  The characters feel real and she conveys the drama and peril with a light touch.  It’s an extraordinary work, all the more poignant when you know the circumstances in which Némirovsky wrote it.

sulphuric acid

Sulphuric Acid by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Shaun Whiteside

A disturbing story of citizens forced into a concentration camp for reality TV. Both the camp and the public seeing it as entertainment are horrifying. But Nothomb has a wonderful dry wit and draws strong, memorable characters. Moving tension between guard Zdena and Pannonique, the viewers’ favourite prisoner. Explores loss of identity, how low we will go for ‘entertainment’, apathy and the mob mentality. A great novella.

housekeeper

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

A housekeeper goes to work for a maths professor whose memory, damaged by an accident, lasts only for 80 minutes. He communicates in maths terms: she is less educated but sensitive and non-judgmental, so learns to appreciate his love of numbers. The professor is kind to her son and they share a passion for baseball. Much is unspoken (what was his life like before the accident?) but there is a gentle message to treat people with respect, not condescension.

in diamond square

In Diamond Square by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush

A beautiful book. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength and the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving.

pleaselookaftermom1

Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim

An exquisite novel set in Seoul. A family searches for their mother, who has gone missing.  Crystal-clear writing – thoughtful but fluid. She gives her characters space to reflect, but on each page there’s a tension or event to propel the reader forward. It’s infused with South Korean culture yet there’s so much we can all relate to (especially regarding motherhood). The final scene is stunning, heart-breaking and redemptive. Highly recommended.

subtly worded

Subtly Worded by Teffi, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler

Short stories by Teffi, a literary star of pre-revolutionary Russia.  I enjoyed these – deftly written, with more than meets the eye, and a sense of humour.  A window into St Petersburg and Paris literary circles of the time, which is fascinating in itself – not to mention Teffi’s (true) stories of meeting Tolstoy and Rasputin.

the end

The End by Fernanda Torres, translated by Alison Entrekin

I thoroughly enjoyed this story of old men in Rio reflecting on their friendships and approaching deaths. It’s narrated by each in turn (with some events repeated). Alvaro is a misanthrope who hates women (but says he hates men too) – this put me off at first but then I just enjoyed her style and humour.  The men feel real, if larger than life, and it’s thought-provoking about age and mortality.

kitchen

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus

I loved this novella. The tone is warm, inviting and quirky with an easy writing style. The characters are innocent and non judgmental, with simple, matter-of-fact observations that reminded me of Murakami, but with a female sensibility. Depth and intelligence behind the simple style. Loved the clean, economical writing and interesting characters.

Kendra and Matthew are also hosting a Women in Translation Readathon this week on Booktube.

What are your favourite books by women in translation?

 

 

 

 

 

5 Books by Working Class Authors

The Bookseller recently surveyed people in the UK book trade about how class is a barrier to entry into writing and publishing.

80% of people who see themselves as working class felt that their background has adversely affected their career.

(Incidentally, I’m not comfortable talking about people as ‘working class’ and wonder if that comes from living in Australia, where we tend to think of ourselves as an egalitarian society – but I think the only way to address these issues is to acknowledge that different socio-economic ‘classes’ for want of a better term, exist).

Barriers include: low paid internships, nepotism, the cost of travel for events or courses, lack of confidence and time to network. And even earlier, perhaps less chance of growing up with the habit of reading. As Noel Murphy has pointed out:

“Reading is not a given for all.  It is a tenuous product of years of nurturing that the more working class you are, the less likely you are to receive … If we want more working class stories, authors and editors then we have to look at how first we might encourage and develop working class readers.”

I’m interested in this as a reader because I want the widest possible range of books.  I read diversely and increasingly am seeking out books in translation, books by own voices authors, Aboriginal Australian stories, queer stories and a mix of fiction and non-fiction.  So far, so good (or so latte liberal?  I’m not sure I can even talk about working class issues – but what is the alternative?  I suppose the difference is in being genuinely open to a wide range of books, not just ticking a box).

But until recently it hadn’t occurred to me that few of the books on my shelves are by working class authors (aka ‘unconscious bias’).

I think the unconscious bias which leads us to read more books by white, middle-class men has a trickle-down effect, starting with publishers and reviewers.  It’s harder for working class people to get a job in publishing or to have their stories published, so there are fewer such books for us to read.  UK publishers are beginning to address this, with things like blind recruitment, paid internships and workshops outside London.

What can we do as readers?  Reading and championing more working class books is a good start.  Here is a list:

One Hundred Years

One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton.

This is a terrific read, with all the things I love in non-fiction: beautiful clean writing; interesting narrative with colourful stories of growing up in Australia’s remote outback, his brother’s ice addiction, coming out, and forging a career despite the barriers of poverty.  But Morton also goes beyond the anecdotes to give us a big picture view.  It opened my eyes to how tough it is to be poor and try to build a career in journalism.

His writing is crisp, matter-of-fact, and honest, but with a sense of humour too. I enjoyed his company as a narrator and (despite the confronting topics) kept wanting to pick it up again when I wasn’t reading it.

Books like Educated by Tara Westover and Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance also show how hard it is to overcome poverty and obtain a university education and a career. I preferred One Hundred Years of Dirt. Morton’s forthright, unvarnished style (but still inventive writing) coupled with the research, appealed to me.  I highly recommend it!

Boy swallows univserse

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton.

A wonderful debut novel about growing up in the working class suburbs of Brisbane.  It’s a generous, touching and at times funny book, with so much heart.  I loved Eli, the lively and engaging narrator.  The characters are larger than life but realistic and vividly bring to life that era.  It gives a sense of the culture and people doing it tough in the outer suburbs.   It became a word-of-mouth sensation in 2018, deservedly so, and has just been shortlisted for two New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards.  Highly recommended.

Lowborn

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

Kerry Hudson has been outspoken about the issue of class in publishing.  I’m keen to read this.  She did a video with Simon Savidge which was delightful and made me want to rush out and buy the book!  Alas, it is not out in Australia until May.

trick to time

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal is another author who has spoken out about the lack of working class representation in publishing.  I thoroughly enjoyed this and read it pretty much in one sitting.   An engaging read and great story with original characters who surprise you – I loved that it wasn’t predictable.  The dialogue and setting felt real.  De Waal has an easy writing style and handles serious matters with warmth.  Beautifully moving.

Elegant Young Man

An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman

This is also on my ‘to read’ list, after Geordie Williamson’s recommendation.  A semi-autobiographical account of growing up in the Western suburbs of Sydney.  Williamson says it is “the smartest, funniest, most eloquent and intellectually urgent account of what it is to be a working class Australian that I have encountered.”  I’m sold. 😉

What books would you add to this list?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling in a Strange Land and Please Look After Mother

Sometimes you read two books at random and discover a theme.  And so it was with these two books – time for a double review!

Travelling in A Strange Land by David Park and Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim, are moving stories about parenthood but told from different points of view.

IMG_8146

Please Look After Mother is an exquisite novel set in Seoul. A family searches for their mother, who has gone missing.  We hear from each of her (now adult) children, who realise the sacrifices their mother made and piece together her life.

The writing is crystal-clear – thoughtful but fluid. Shin gives her characters space to reflect, but on each page there’s a tension or event to propel the reader forward. It’s infused with South Korean culture yet there’s so much we can all relate to (especially regarding family dynamics and obligations).

IMG_9095

In Travelling in a Strange Land a man called Tom drives through snowy roads, thinking about his son and wondering whether he has been a good father.

Park’s strong, assured writing propels us firmly onwards even in slower parts.  At first the endless snow, with Tom circling around the issue but not coming to the point, frustrated me, but it mimics his state of mind, which is frozen; he looks at the snow rather than confront his memories.

It picks up and becomes a very moving, honest portrayal of parents at a loss over their son. Towards the end, the poetic writing soars and the emotions of the father feel so real it’s heart-breaking.

As to parenthood, in both cases they have been good parents: the irony, or perhaps the evidence, of this is that their children have taken them for granted.

Both books have beautiful, heart-breaking, redemptive endings.  Their major achievement is that the final scenes are sublime and dramatic, but it’s earned – it feels true to the characters.

I won’t give away the stories, but in both, the characters reach a point between sacrificing everything for others and being selfish, and land on compassion.  It feels hopeful, I think because it taps into something human in all of us: we’re not perfect when it comes to caring for our families and others, but our sense of compassion will prevail.

It’s rare to find two books with such memorable endings – I recommend both.

Have you read either of these (or other books with inadvertant themes)? Let me know what you think!

‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday

 

BIeybgW1SHWiiY03narjpw
My reading spot at Kangaroo Island – bliss!

‘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.