Clever, complex and well crafted.
This is a bold, clever debut novel by Lisa Halliday. It's a story told in three sections which are (allegedly) connected by narrative strands that run throughout. Finding them is the great challenge and joy of the book (if that’s your type of thing!).
Alternatively, it could be perceived as two novellas. The first section and my favourite, ‘Folly’, tells the story of Alice, a young book editor and her relationship with a much older man, Ezra Blazer, a renowned and famous writer. This appears to be semi-biographical in that Halliday had an age-gap relationship with esteemed novelist Philip Roth. Perhaps a little self indulgent? If you look past this, it is a tender, quirky exploration of unlikely love in New York during the early years of the Iraq War. I liked the vibe and very American feel to this section, it may sit better with U.S readers because of the baseball backdrop, but can be enjoyed by all.
Asymmetry in its many forms runs throughout this book and can be found in Blazer’s control and dominance in their relationship. It’s a quirky, sometimes sweet relationship, but one dominated by the older Brazer. It makes for an interesting device in characterisation. Brazer is intriguing, intelligent and ultimately unlikeable. Alice is initially sweet and naive but begins to find herself by the end of the section and maybe this unhealthy relationship was the catalyst for this to happen.
Alice is the most interesting character of the novel and it was disappointing to say goodbye in the second section that appeared to have zero correlation with the first. The second section ‘ Madness’ is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi American, due to travel to meet his brother in Kurdistan. He is detained in Heathrow by immigration officers and ‘questioned’ over his dual nationality. While being interviewed, Amar’s mind wanders back and forth to his childhood in the Middle East and America and we see the many challenges faced. Where a relationship was used previously to show the asymmetry of power, in this section we see this through the difficulties of immigration and the inequalities of power of different countries. Interesting tale but I had no idea how this linked with the first story. They seemed absolutely separate novellas.
However, the final section (cleverly, for the eagle eyed and perceptive), brings it all together. I won’t divulge as this would ruin the ending. The last section acts as the perfect coda, we revisit Ezra Blazer some years later being interviewed on Desert island discs; in fact the asymmetry is present once again when the interview is abandoned and Ezra dictates and controls how this takes place. Very cleverly and subtly we are given the reveal and the links become apparent.
While reading the book I wasn’t quite sure I was enjoying the read. It was challenging and confusing, I prefer to read with my heart rather than my head and thought I was trying too hard to create something that probably wasn’t there. However, on completion and after having some time to think, it was clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this well written, complex, sometimes charming, sometime bleak book. It’s not a straightforward novel and that’s the beauty of it. I was confused by the structure initially, but loved it in the end. We have great themes examined like inequality of gender, cultural differences and domination, all coupled with a wealth of literary, political and musical references. Quite a genre departure for me but massively impressed.