Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry, begins with a lopsided affair–a perfect vehicle for a story of inexperience and advantage. This romance is between Alice, a young woman in publishing, and Ezra Blazer, a literary éminence grise, who resembles a certain real-life novelist who is chronically on Nobel wish lists. The details of their relationship are sometimes painfully precise, but Alice’s emotions are mostly left to guesswork.
Just as there is something aslant between Alice and Ezra, there is asymmetry between the first half of the book and the second, which focuses on Amar Ala Jaafari, an Iraqi-American man detained at Heathrow Airport. The shift in subject matter complements one in style: the writing is now explicitly emotional, and so far from the understatement of the first half that you might think it was a different book written by another author. Which is Halliday’s delicious trick.
As Ezra says at the end, his “young friend” has written a “veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.” Alice and Amar may be naive, but Halliday is knowing–about isolation, dissatisfaction and the pain of being human.
This appears in the February 12, 2018 issue of TIME.