Book Review: 'Asymmetry'

Apr 16, 2018

Lisa Halliday’s debut, Asymmetry, is an experiment in the form of the novel, and an exploration of the multilayered life of an artist. It’s made up of three sections: Folly, Madness, and a Coda.

In “Folly,” Alice, a young editor and aspiring writer, meets Ezra, a famous novelist 50 years her senior, on a park bench near Central Park. It is not long before Alice is spending her evenings at Ezra’s apartment, while she continues to read manuscripts during the day. She brings him groceries. They watch baseball and talk about writing. Ezra’s name has been batted around as a contender for the Nobel Prize. He disappears on weekends to his house in the country, a place Alice is only rarely invited to. Even in her inferior position, though, this younger woman has agency. The trail of manuscript to book to career to world recognition is hers to reflect on.  

Things get interesting in the rabbit hole we go down in the muscular, second section. “Madness” is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American. On his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan, he is detained by immigration officers in a holding room at Heathrow airport. One horrifying day turns into two. Amar, terrified, is held for the last weekend of 2008.

What is going on here? Why have we suddenly gone from the Upper West Side apartment of a successful novelist to the intense realities of the Iraq War? In the Coda, Ezra gets his Nobel Prize, the narratives subtly overlap, and Halliday shows the profound power of art and story.