Simon & Schuster; Grove Atlantic
David Canfield
March 05, 2018 AT 02:00 AM EST

Every year, amid a sea of high-profile and heavily-hyped literary debuts, only a few manage to really stand out from the pack, to generate sustained chatter beyond that frenzied first week of release. Here at EW, we’ve already raved about a few exemplary freshman efforts and spoken to authors of others. What’s more, we’ve previewed dozens of 2018 debuts that have yet to be published, many of which are carrying significant expectations.

But so far this year, there are two books from first-time authors that have struck a chord in the literary world louder than all the rest: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Akwaeke Ezemi’s Freshwater.

As a pair, these two novels, both released in early February, are radically different in form and execution; but they’re bound by their aggressive singularity, the power of their ideas. They’re books that provoke thought — not in the polemical, blunt fashion that remains firmly in style, but rather in their careful use of language.

Asymmetry is a novel that at first glance appears like a collection of unrelated novellas. In the first, a young woman comes of age in New York City, against the backdrop of the Iraq War’s beginnings, and launches into a romance with a revered older author named Ezra. (The man is not exactly modeled on Philip Roth, but Halliday did actually date Roth when she worked at a literary agency; Asymmetry’s Ezra has also notably never won the Nobel Prize — much like Roth.) In the second, an Iraqi-American man is detained by immigration officers against his will, in the month following Barack Obama’s election victory. Finally, the third and shortest section returns to the revered author’s perspective as he gives a radio interview. The connection between the novellas comes thrillingly into focus only on the final pages.

Without giving away the “twist,” if it can even be considered as such, Asymmetry deconstructs storytelling conventions by exploring how they come to be. Halliday has spoken frankly about how the first section is based on her own experiences; she gives it the sheen of rom-com and tacks on the intriguingly pseudo-anonymous fame factor. It’s a recognizable sort of read. Yet like Halliday, it seems safe to say, its protagonist clearly emerges from the affair edified — catch a clue provided in part three, and you’ll see how the character’s experiences with that power imbalance (or, you know, asymmetry) informed the way she saw and grappled with the world. You’ll see how she learned to tell stories about people, power, art, politics — about life.

These familiar images — a woman navigating her agency while in a relationship with an older man, a man of Middle Eastern descent being detained merely for what he looks like — are ones we can easily ascribe significance to. But Asymmetry gets at hot-button topics like gender and xenophobia in deceptively complex ways. It introduces what we assume are well-trod narratives to take us on a journey that commands a deeper investment and a closer look — to think about the origin and motivation behind those familiar images.

There is something so refreshing — galvanizing, even — about that discovery process. Survey the landscape of new fiction and a ubiquity of twisty upmarket thrillers will quickly become apparent, as will the fanged dystopias speaking explicitly to the current moment. Some of these books are better than others, but regardless, Asymmetry creates its own category. Halliday’s big revelation isn’t some jaw-dropping plot point. Her politics aren’t bleeding out of every turned page. You discover what she’s writing about as you go along, and then re-discover and re-discover.

Emezi’s exceptional Freshwater is similarly a novel that sidesteps contemporary fiction’s more obvious beats. Specifically, it realizes a way of tackling mental illness that’s simultaneously innovative, illuminating, and transporting. The book is steeped in Nigerian mythology and centers on Ada, a young woman who has developed separate selves as a result of being an “ogbanje” — an Igbo spirit which the book describes as having “one foot on the other side.” That she hears voices is rooted in a kind of cosmology, and Emezi’s writing — telling Ada’s story as she does, from the different voices in her head — is so convincing in making that argument that she challenges any and every assumption of what it means to live with mental illness. It’s not other-ized here; it’s based in gods and spirits.

Emezi brings Ada from Nigeria to the U.S., from childhood to adulthood. The story veers into harrowing territory as Ada wrestles with the other personalities inside of her body — and as she survives first her mother’s abandonment and then a sexual assault in college — but it’s so imaginative and dreamy and lyrical that a light still shines through. The destigmatization of mental illness has become a focus in popular entertainment circles, particularly the YA space, and the bracing Freshwater takes that effort several steps further. Brilliantly, it reconfigures Western conceptions of identity, trauma, and even consciousness by discarding Western approaches to character.

Emezi’s debut comes amid a wave of Nigerian authors making a splash stateside, turning heads for their experimentations with genre. Emezi is but the latest to do so, and yet Freshwater feels exceptional nonetheless, bringing a whole new set of narrative tools to subjects of utmost interest right now. Along those lines, it recalls the appeal of Asymmetry. Both titles creatively soar by rejecting established ways of doing things, or eschewing trends of the moment — by defying categorization. They compel us to revisit what we think we know through disarmingly fierce prose. It’s a strategy that rattles with risk. After all, in the pursuit of such grand aims, there’s only one thing an author can reliably lean on: great writing. Fortunately, both Halliday and Emezi bring that in spades.

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