Luke and Anya get engaged on a trip to France, Luke’s parents invite them to their house in Cornwall to celebrate, and Luke finally convinces Anya to take a trip home so that he can, at long last, meet her parents. Homecoming, as it turns out, is not as simple for Anya; she left Sarajevo as a child, during the Balkan War. Her fragmented memories are complicated by the brother who stayed and later killed himself, the mother who refused to leave and now suffers from Alzheimer’s, the sister who left with Anya only to return, dutifully, as an adult.
During a sleepless night before her flight, Anya vomits into the sink, ‘the walls disintegrating’ around her. She tries to wash it away but blocks the sink in the process. ‘Sensing the end was far away, I hobbled out for a bucket and rug, teeth chattering, then sat back on the bathroom floor to ride things out’. Morning comes, and there is no time to deal with the blocked sink before they leave; it’s a festering, weighty omen of things to come. Vacations may drive the narrative of Asylum Road, but any romance about them is quickly dispelled.
In 2017, Sudjic released her first novel, Sympathy, to critical acclaim and widespread acknowledgement that it was the first great Instagram novel. Her follow-up, Exposure, is a slim but meticulous essay in which Sudjic explores the decline of her mental health after Sympathy’s publication. Between them, they form an elegant pair charting the falsity of social media, and the anxieties it arouses in its users, women in particular. Asylum Road presents us with something quite different, an exploration of displacement and identity in contemporary Europe. The subject matter may be more expansive, but Asylum Road is a tighter, more concentrated venture than Sudjic’s debut, and in it she has perfected her detached voice to exert new reaches of anxiety and unease on the reader. Although it was written before the pandemic, there is something in the narrative that keeps us constantly on edge, just as many of us are at the moment, continually poised for bad news.
Sudjic captures Anya’s feeling of unravelling reality, the lack of certainty she has suffered since childhood, with a horrific precision. Britain exiting the EU is never far from sight. Anya stays up late arguing about Brexit online, and resents her fiancé’s ability to remain friendly with his parents after they voted Leave ‘I’d never felt closer to Luke’, Anya tells us, ‘than when he and his parents had fallen out’. The cause of their argument was the referendum, but he makes up with them treacherously quickly (in Anya’s eyes) in a way that seems only to alienate her further.
In fact, it is through Luke’s characterisation that contemporary British politics are satirised most viciously. He argues with his parents about Brexit – ‘they said it would be suicide staying in Europe, while Luke thought that word would be more apt if we left’, a comment he retracts in embarrassment when he recalls Anya’s brother – and agonises over his carbon footprint, all while living in the family London-based apartment. His parents (almost caricature figures) will not knock on Luke’s bedroom door, a ‘fan of borders but not boundaries’, and support Cornish nationalism despite not being Cornish themselves.
Resentments and jealousies eat away at Anya, souring her opinion of Luke and his family; by contrast, she only allows us transitory, fleeting glimpses into her relationship with her own family. Her memories of the Bosnian War, and the difficulties she faced settling in Scotland with her aunt’s family afterwards, build to a nauseous, feverish climax in the area of London inauspiciously known as ‘Asylum Road’. It’s an upsetting, remorseless exploration of trauma, but Sudjic’s writing has never been better.
By the end, however, it is Anya’s bleak, burned out voice rather than the anxious, jittering atmosphere that horrifies us the most. Asylum Road deals primarily with identity and contested feelings of belonging, but Anya can no longer think of herself in these terms: she is apathetic, detached, (almost) emotionless. Indeed, Sudjic is at her best when she is exploring, with cold emotionality, the submissive powerlessness that gnaws at Anya’s relationships with others. Her lack of identity (and her lack of interest, or will, to acquire one) makes a chilling contrast with the polarised and fraught politics of the other characters in the novel, whether it’s Luke’s environmental politics, his parents’ Cornish nationalism, or the author in Sarajevo who is assassinated for writing about the war. For all the socio-political context, however, Anya’s crisis in the novel is a deeply personal and distressing one, through which Sudjic presents us with a powerful reminder that tragedy and social collapse are always lurking, never far below the surface.
Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic (Bloomsbury) is out on January 21, 2021.