Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

A lot has been written about this book. Its title is Asymmetry, and this applies to its structure, content and meaning. The first part deals with the relationship between Ezra, a world-renowned writer in his 70s, and Alice, a publishing assistant in her 20s. Their bonding is superficial and difficult to describe as emotional, with Ezra acting as both Alice’s mentor and lover: when he’s not swearing and being cynical, he’s either being overly generous to her (financially) or offers her advice on the arts by recommending books and records.

As for the style, the phrases are simple, simplistic even, in line with the superficiality of its main characters. These come in contrast with the more graceful writing of the second part, which is both more lyrical and way more descriptive (on purpose), while the third part is in the form of a radio interview. So why these changes in style? First, it should me emphasized that It’s not that Halliday can’t write decently, on the contrary it has to do with the message she’s trying to put across. Second, these style shifts hint at the title of the book. Third, all of them have their aim. The Alice of the first part doesn’t show any emotion whatsoever. She passively succumbs to the needs and demands of her aged lover. She observes everything without criticising. Her real emotions are only shown in the second chapter in the form of a literary character called Amar.

In a sense, the third part does highlight a fraction of the preceding parts, but until then the impatient reader might have already given up to what seem like three individual stories. The rave American reviews are justified by the fact that the novel uses a simple language, yet deals with more high-brow issues such as immigration, expatriation, generation gaps. It also includes hints to contemporary and classical art (famous novelists such as Jelinek and Camus are mentioned, as wells as composers such as Janacek, to give but a few examples).

Asymmetry is in line with many contemporary American novels: it shares little with classic American fiction and is far removed from European literature, both classical and contemporary. Due to its “asymmetrical” content (no pun intended) It does read like three different novellas, despite hints and traces of common themes. Hence, it is difficult to assess the novel as a cohesive whole. For that, we shall wait for the writer’s next work, since this one has drawn so much attention from American reviewers.


Title: Asymmetry
Author: Lisa Halliday
Published: Simon & Schuster, 2018


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