Thursday, March 8, 2018

Book Review: "Asymmetry" by Lisa Halliday

How do you judge a book—do you just consider whether or not you liked it, or do you also take into consideration whether or not the author's attempt at conveying a message worked for you? This dilemma arose for me after reading Lisa Halliday's debut novel, Asymmetry.

The book is unevenly divided into three novellas. I loved the first one, enjoyed parts of the second one, and really didn't understand the purpose of the third one. Since the third novella portrayed a character from the first novella in a rather unflattering (although not unsurprising) light, I didn't enjoy it at all, and kept waiting for something more to happen.

While it appeared that the first two novellas are completely unrelated, apparently the third novella sheds some light on the characters in the first two, or at least deepens their meaning. I'm not ashamed to say I didn't see that, and honestly, I'm not a fan of having to read something so closely as if to search for hidden meaning. But unfortunately, it dampened my overall enthusiasm for the book, despite it being well written.

"Folly," my favorite, is the story of Alice, a young editor living in New York City shortly after 9/11. She is having an affair with the famed writer Ezra Blazer, a legendary author who is significantly older than she is. Their relationship occurs in fits and starts, as Blazer does everything he can to ensure Alice doesn't become too attached, and in a small way, ensure he doesn't become too dependent on her. As the novella explores Alice's life both with and without Blazer, it also explores the writing process, and how what we read has an influence on what we write, and how we see.

"Madness" follows Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained at Heathrow while on the way to visit his brother in Kurdistan. The novella juxtaposes his interrogation, as he tries to make sense of why he is being detained beyond his heritage, and his experiences the last time he and his family visited Iraq. It also provided commentary on identity, ambition, relationships, and the fraught environment of post-Saddam Iraq.

In the third, and shortest, novella, "Ezra Blazer's Desert Island Discs," Blazer returns to appear on the famed BBC radio program and shares his thoughts on which music he'd most want to have with him if stranded. Beyond a list of musical acts and their significance, Blazer shares some memories from his life which provide more insight into his character—and he flirts shamelessly with the program's host.

I believe Halliday really has some talent as a writer. There were a number of times I marveled at her language and imagery. I loved Alice's character in particular, and was fascinated by her relationship with Blazer. I'll admit that I felt a little gypped when her story ended and Amar's began. Amar's story was uneven—I definitely found the scenes with him being interrogated far more compelling than the rest of his rather disaffected life.

While this was an intriguing read, as I mentioned, I didn't see the thread that connected the novellas, so the book as a whole didn't work for me. This could work for others, however—I know a few people who thought it's one of the best books written thus far in 2018. Regardless of where you end up, Halliday is a talent worth watching.

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