Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday review – a dizzying debut

This thrilling novel about a relationship between an ageing writer and a young woman explores the uses of creativity

“So. Miss Alice. Are you game?” The question is posed by an eminent novelist of about 70, who has sat on a Manhattan park bench and struck up conversation with a young woman reading a book. It sounds like the beginning of another #MeToo story, and Lisa Halliday’s striking debut is certainly – as the title implies – a sharp examination of the unequal power dynamic between men and women, innocence and experience, fame and aspiration. Through its fractured structure and daring incompleteness, it also explores the unreliability of memory, the accidents of history and the exercise and understanding of creativity. Most of all, it wonders whether we can ever “penetrate the looking-glass” of our own personality to imagine another consciousness – a question as relevant to human relationships as it is to novel writing.

Twentysomething Alice works in publishing, so is instantly in awe of this old man offering her chocolate with a trembling hand. He is world-famous writer Ezra Blazer, a dead ringer for Philip Roth, with whom Halliday had a relationship in her 20s. The Lewis Carroll references are intentional: this Alice is also struggling to progress through a confusing, surreal world. She finds herself jumping down a rabbit hole – or, rather, into a lift up to Ezra’s apartment, worrying “more than a little about what was going to happen next” – and embarking on a tricky, tender affair in which the rules are inevitably set by him. He summons her by phone, appearing always as “CALLER ID BLOCKED”, then sings “The party’s over …” when he wants her to leave. He gives her presents that range from the sweets of his youth to rolls of hundred-dollar bills via bagloads of improving books (“It’s Ca-MOO, sweetheart. He’s French”). She calls him cradlerobber; he calls her graverobber. The medical complications are hair-raising.

Throughout all this, though Alice is the narrative focus, the reader has very little insight into her feelings. We are left to assume, from her scrutiny and destruction of Polaroids Ezra takes of her, the standard amount of self-loathing typical of a young woman, her helpless immaturity. This scrupulously withholding tone enables some deliciously fertile ambiguities. Early on, Ezra gives her a lesson to countermand the endless female impulse to apologise: “Darling, don’t continually say ‘I’m sorry’. Next time you feel like saying ‘I’m sorry’, instead say ‘Fuck you’.” When they later clash over the predictable difficulties of their asymmetric relationship, her “Fuck you” has a delicately devastating irony.

The novel is mostly set at the opening of the century, around the US invasion of Iraq. Its first section ticks off the years through the Nobel prizes Ezra misses out on: “Blazer! You were robbed!” yells a man in the street when Elfriede Jelinek wins in 2004. It tacks close to reality, containing not only Nobel citations but passages from the classic authors Ezra urges on Alice: Camus, Henry Miller, Primo Levi. There’s another asymmetry here, between the canon and the debutante, between histories of Auschwitz and a Manhattan comedy of manners. Slabs of text from medicine packets and abortion clinic leaflets add to a sense of the overwhelming variousness of historical and literary experience – a pack of cards threatening to bury would-be writer Alice, who is “starting to consider really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man”. Then there’s Ezra looming in the foreground, and the anxiety of influence: “And, hadn’t he already said everything she wanted to say?”

The second and third sections do not exactly answer this question, but consider it from different angles. In the second Amar, an Iraqi American detained at border control in London, looks back on his life. The final section is a ridiculously convincing transcript of a Desert Island Discs interview with Ezra in 2011, by which time he has at last bagged a Nobel (Halliday borrows Mario Vargas Llosa’s, awarded in 2010). That Halliday can write part of her book in the voice of Kirsty Young, and pull it off, is one of the many surprises here.

Amar’s section is more complicated – and indeed, it’s meant to complicate things. Where we read between the lines of Ezra and Alice’s zippy dialogue to intuit the shifting tides of emotion between them, Amar is a more traditionally forthcoming narrator. He wants to convey the experience of growing up in the US in an immigrant family, of trips to Baghdad, first loves and first jobs. He translates Arabic phrases for us and uses his medical training to muse on genetics; he wrestles sincerely with questions of time, memory and identity, drawing on a wide literary hinterland that suggests he’s read all those books Ezra bought for Alice, and more. He notes that we are all different people at different times and in different places – youth and adulthood, America and Iraq, one’s diary and one’s head – but he cannot escape the accident of his birth, trapping him in a story of violence and war.

Can any of us escape our own perspective? What are the risks, if we do not? What is art for, and how do we fit our lives around it? This is a debut asking a dizzying number of questions, many to thrilling effect. That it leaves the reader wondering is a mark of its success.

• Asymmetry is published by Granta. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99..


Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

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