A Companionable Fit

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

Granta, 272pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781783783601

reviewed by Laura Waddell

Asymmetry, the title of Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, could refer to its unconventional structure, where two seemingly unrelated stories are joined together by a coda at the end, or the disparate lives of the characters of Alice and Amar, who respectively star in each section. It could describe other themes of the book: an age-gap relationship, the right of different nationals to travel undisturbed. It is an excellent title for an excellent book that examines the lives of characters trying to make sense of the world as they look at it from different angles. 

Part one focuses on Alice, a young editorial assistant in New York City who works for the publishing house Gryphon and has a desire to write. She enters into a relationship with older man Ezra, an esteemed writer multiple decades her senior, and their topsy-turvy time together encapsulates the difference in not only the stage each is at in their career, but also in their overall wealth, health and power. She is enamoured by his prestige, and willingly follows his lead in how much time they spend together, what she should wear and other rules. He sings ‘The party’s over’ when he wants her to leave, and she does. She gifts him a cord for his spectacles; he gives her thousands of dollars to spend on new clothes at the store he has named. He also gives her the books he thinks she should read; she mispronounces ‘Camus’. When she walks into his house for the first time, he takes her wallet, throws it in the trash and gives her money for a new one. To signify quite how much Alice’s identity is shaped by Ezra to his own whims and tastes, he even renames her, calling her by her full name, Mary-Alice, when she prefers to be Alice, and the fake name Samantha when they are around others, when she must pretend to be a research assistant.

This reveals not only her excitement to go along with a man who holds her in his stead but also his status anxiety. Despite Ezra’s illustrious career, this section is studded with announcements of other Nobel Prize for Literature awardees and not his own name. His health declines; he ends up in hospital, or checked by physicians, and on occasion the reassurance brought by these trips veers more towards luxury than medical necessity. His inability to maintain a relationship of equals looks like a bid for control and an entrenched ego at the expense of emotional honesty or expansiveness. Alice, for all her youth and potential stretching before her, does not leverage this power against Ezra, who pulls the puppet strings; in the rhythm of their conversations, he calls and she answers. It is difficult to respect this man who is poised for the greatest literary prizes; his patronising of Alice joins attempts to flirt with interviewers in a sad need for personal validation.

Much has been made of Halliday’s own relationship with Philip Roth – which took place in her 20s and the esteemed author’s 50s – and its similarity to Alice and Ezra’s situation. But Halliday’s personal life and this fictional relationship are not a direct parallel, she has stated in interviews, and she remains friends with Roth, who provided positive feedback on her book. The author’s life and her fiction are an asymmetrical fit in a way that recalls Sophie Collins’ recently published Who is Mary Sue?, as it explores the assumption that a woman writer relays her own life on the page, with an absence of the imagination attributed to other great (male) writers. Collins collates responses from prominent female authors who have been asked the question, ‘Is this character really you?’, and the responses range from denial to exasperation. In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Halliday stated: ‘Of course the first part of the book was inspired by a relationship that I had, but there is so much that is invented and imagined for the sake of a compelling narrative.’

She considers herself closer in temperament to Amar, an Iraqi-American doctor of economics detained at Heathrow airport en route to Kurdistan to visit family. There’s a lesson in there somewhere on how we group people. To assume that this woman must be more akin to a young, naive editorial assistant than an erudite man exploring philosophical questions with a degree of life experience under his belt is to sidestep her intelligent and mature writing style, which is surprisingly accomplished for a debut, confident in its unconventional structure, fluidly paced and rich in thoughtful content. Ultimately, how we relate to others or imagine ourselves in their situations, while each of us is at some point along the grand narrative arc of our lives, is one of the main themes of the book.

Alice and Amar are, on the surface, very different characters in very different situations, but their stories do not jar; they fit together companionably as both undergo formative experiences in different continents, even if linked by little more than that thin thread. It all makes a kind of sense in the third, short part of the book, a reflection of Ezra’s life on Desert Island Discs where he flirts with a thinly veiled Kirsty Young, presenter of the real series, and hints at Alice’s path as a writer and the manuscript which was to become, it seems likely, the story of Amar, a subtle fiction within a fiction. This pays testimony not only to Alice’s inevitable growth in maturity but also the realisation of her writing dreams after all, and not only through proximity to an older man who’d lived many years of an esteemed writing as well as romantic life before she could catch up. There’s a sadness, too, or perhaps a cathartic release in how little Alice ultimately features in Ezra’s summary of his life and its loves, recalling how quickly she was to capitulate to his demands and at one moment, fantasise about a life prioritising him above all else.

Amar’s tale, on the contrary, contains a well-established sense of self, even when the status of that self is questioned by border authorities and his identity, encompassing both America and Iraq, is interrogated both by government officials and a family he at times feels distanced from. Sitting in a holding area with a vending machine and a few international issue magazines for company, he reflects on previous trips to Iraq and how the legacy of the American occupation is manifesting itself in the domestic lives of its citizens and those whose family members are missing. By nature he is ever-questioning, probing of wealth, justice and other principles of life under governance, all while challenged by heavyweight stressors of warfare and mortality. Most of all he is an intelligent and thoughtful man, one who it is a pleasure to spend time with.

Asymmetry profiles two people in a state of reckoning with their place in modern America and in the world. Its curious structure lends itself well to probing differences in experience and existence. It’s a joy to read, a clever book which tackles big subjects without being bombastic, atmospherically and eloquently written, allowing characters space to think and reflect.