The stunning second novel from the author of Sympathy is told from the point of view of Anya, and takes place mostly over three trips: a drive to Provence for a holiday with her distant, uncommunicative boyfriend Luke; a visit to his parents in Cornwall; and a trip back to Sarajevo to see her family. It transpires that Anya escaped Sarajevo during the war, sent to live with relatives in Glasgow and now her long-suppressed memories are resurfacing. A beautifully written and deeply unsettling exploration of trauma and a young woman on the edge.
Asylum Road explodes the comfortable myth that we can shut ourselves down, that narrowing our emotional register will allow us to escape our memories. It is not a novel that is easily forgotten. Sudjic is not herself a survivor of Sarajevo – she was born in London – but by compelling us to feel as Anya feels, to bear witness to the harrowing legacy of a war that dominated our television screens but not, perhaps, our hearts, she incriminates us all. As one character angrily demands: “We’re supposed to be grateful that they tuned in to watch us dying?” Those of us who can remember watching are left with an uncomfortable feeling of complicity, our own survivors’ guilt.
The author has form with unstable narrators; her first book, Sympathy, also has a young woman struggling with identity and assimilation, in that case leading to Ripley-esque stalking and subterfuge. As was true in her debut, here too mental anguish has physical manifestations: Anya obsessively rakes her chin, searching for rogue hairs; there are grim gynaecological episodes. She casts an unflinching gaze on her failings. As the pile-up of events overwhelms her, we share with her the sense of plummeting, fingers clawing for purchase.
At first, Asylum Road presents itself with a kind of gauzy familiarity. But this jittery novel, haunted by the ghosts of Balkans past and Brexit future, is no pastiche, or homage. In the book’s final, wheeling pages, we are no longer listening to Anya but watching her; and for a split-second, a collective mind emerges in her narrative like some anguished Greek chorus: “the past keeps intruding”, it tells us, “we are sick of it”. Is Anya’s point of view breaking down, or breaking free? And how might we tell the difference? Asylum Road asks this both of its heroine and, in so doing so, of the form of the novel itself. For true freedom, Sudjic argues, can look a lot like disintegration; and trauma, a lot like stasis.
Asylum Road is also the work of a literary voice maturing. Where Sympathy was wandering, it is taut and propulsive, carefully plotted as a three-part thriller – or three-act tragedy. It is full of witty slices of structural symmetry: the second part is called “Split” for Anja and Luke’s trip to the city of that name in Croatia, to see her parents, but also for their increasingly fraying relationship; and the first line is echoed in the final scene, in which Luke instructs Anja, over the phone, how to kill a mouse. In the end, as it turns out, it is the murders, rather than the slightly simplistic politics, that hold the novel together. Enjoyed on those terms, it is masterful and wicked.
Sudjic’s writing is spare, pared-back; as Anya’s relationship and security unravels in the wake of the unsuccessful trip home, her self-scrutiny remains clear-eyed and unsparing. The sense of quiet threat that pervades the novel, of something deeply unsettling building beneath the surface, finally erupts in the last pages with a bleak inevitability. Asylum Road shows Sudjic confidently expanding the reach of her fiction, with an unerring instinct for asking timely questions.
Sudjic’s novel is full of raw emotion and visceral description: the sky is a pink ‘so saccharine my teeth began to ache’, while future children are ‘bloblike shapes, legs blotted with pink bruises’. Like Sarajevo’s abandoned buildings, pockmarked with bullet holes, the prose is studded with gut-punching sentences. Contemplating the way people have spoken to her about the siege, Anya recalls a woman at a wedding who ‘blinked at me kindly and said it must be sad when your country no longer exists, then returned to pulverising her asparagus’.
Asylum Road is a novel pervaded by a genuinely unnerving sense of anxiety, dread and unease, and there’s something admirable in the stubborn way in which Sudjic refuses to cut her readers any slack. Her writing is raw and fragmented, mimicking Anya’s own disintegrating sense of self, not that this necessarily makes her character any easier to understand. Despite the supposed intimacy of the first-person narration, Anya’s disquiet and apprehension fracture outward, running like fault lines through the prose. The results — at least in the first section of the book — can be disorientating.