sun 16/06/2024

Lisa Halliday: Asymmetry review - unconventional and brilliant | reviews, news & interviews

Lisa Halliday: Asymmetry review - unconventional and brilliant

Lisa Halliday: Asymmetry review - unconventional and brilliant

Compelling debut novel takes us down the rabbit hole of different people's lives

Lisa Halliday Photo © Phil Soheili

Lisa Halliday’s striking debut novel consists of three parts. The first follows the blooming relationship between Alice and Ezra (respectively an Assistant Editor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer) in New York; the middle section comprises a series of reflections narrated by Amar, an American-Iraqi while he is held in detention at Heathrow en route to see his brother in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The final third consists of a transcript of Ezra’s Desert Island Discs recorded some years later.

The book focusses on how power imbalances inflect relationships. This is quite clear when Alice’s giddy flirtation with Ezra (at that point described only as “the writer”) begins in earnest as he invites her for a walk the following Saturday. As she takes down his number on her bookmark he notes that she’s lost her place. Her telling response, “‘That’s okay,’ said Alice,” rings through their relationship. However these imbalances also manifest in less expected ways, such as Amar’s reaction to Denise, a border guard, as he has his fingerprints taken. Detainer and detainee though Denise and Amar remain, in attempting to produce prints of sufficient quality that the “hard-to-please computer” will accept, the two are united in a common purpose and Amar, despite finding Denise unattractive and nothing less than professionally brisk, begins to feel faintly aroused.

It’s the human in the system, the irrational bits which haven’t been codified into expected explanations that Halliday hones in on, and from these that she extrapolates wider questions about the extent of our ability to think our way into each others’ lives, and the roles people play for each other in any interaction or relationship.

Asymmetry by Lisa HallidayIn one instance, while staying at Ezra’s Long Island hideaway, Ezra and Alice attend a piano concert, the first half of the programme comprising a piece whose first three notes “sounded like day dawning; day or time itself” followed by two Stockhausen pieces “which sounded to Alice like a cat walking around on the keyboard.” For the second half of the concert Halliday characteristically segues from relaying the striking similes which Alice composes in her head to more narratively directed description. For Alice, watching in the audience next to Ezra, the force of this concert tears her in two, making her want “to do, invent, create — to channel all her own energies into the making of something beautiful and unique to herself” but also to “submit to the loving of someone so deeply and well that there could be no question as to whether she was squandering her life.”

Halliday suggests that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, for while the pianist is gripped by the Beethoven she is playing, she is  herself  gripping. Love, and service to another’s art, can be themselves fulfilling and resplendent, but this is not Alice’s way. Alice knows this, but until she admits it, it’s the game she’s playing with herself. The clues are there: looking around she sees people’s lives flowing away as sand  except for Beethoven, who has transcended his own life and musically, magically fills the room. And so the hints that she is writing, testing out ideas and trying the limits of her imaginative compassion become promised acts of future creation.

On the other hand, Amar’s fear of being written out of memory manifests itself in intermittent attempts to keep a diary and mental reflections which can summed up in his question to himself “What don’t I remember? Contemplating the blackouts in their aggregate makes my breath come short.” While Alice looks towards the longevity accrued through writing, Amar seeks preservation from the encroaching oblivion through the act of remembering, which becomes both an act of resurrection and creation.

Halliday’s writing is playful and a delight to read. It is full of the zest derived from the confidence that the American literary canon which has so obviously nourished this work has space to include her. Yet throughout the book, Halliday challenges us to ask (and see) what fiction can do, what writing someone’s life can do, what writing about “‘people more interesting than I am,’” as Alice puts it, can accomplish when such different lives are taking place simultaneously.


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