Anya, the 31-year-old narrator of this exacting, compulsive novel, is obsessed with true crime. She and her boyfriend Luke listen to crime podcasts together, and as the future of their relationship starts to look precarious, it is this activity that comes to replace physical or emotional intimacy. “When we did have sex now it was usually followed by a feeling of dissolution that seemed more intense than normal post-sex loneliness, at least for me,” Anya thinks, just a few pages in. “Solving a murder was a better way for us to feel connected.”
Asylum Road is Olivia Sudjic’s third book, following Sympathy (2017), hailed as “the first great Instagram novel”, and Exposure (2018), an essay examining the traumatic side-effects of being a woman making art in the public eye. It is permeated with tragic events, but does not lay on the true crime theme laboriously. She is far too slick and subtle a writer for that. Instead she uses crime as a means to explore the protagonist’s relationship with personal control. It makes for an elegant interrogation of historical trauma and the meaning of refuge in the modern world.
True crime acts as a strange comfort to Anya, whose understanding of her own identity is bound up with warfare and loss. Born to Bosnian parents, she moved with her sister to Glasgow as a child, fleeing the unrest of the Balkans in the Nineties while her parents and brother stayed behind. This is a post-Brexit novel in that the effects of the referendum are tensions warping Anya’s understanding of the people around her – “I’d never felt closer to him than during the previous summer, when he and his parents had fallen out,” she says, bluntly, of Luke and his Leave-voting family – but, Sudjic shows, her fears of existing without belonging go much deeper.
When Anya travels to Sarajevo to introduce Luke to her estranged parents, she becomes untethered, unable to marry the two parts of herself – her life in the UK and the memories of her difficult childhood – which she has, until now, compartmentalised. Her anxieties manifest in insomnia and physical sickness, which Sudjic, in typically idiosyncratic style, makes palpable: “Our seats were in the middle of the plane and as we shunted past each row, the sight of so much irradiated human flesh made me convulse again.” At first there is something laughable about Anya’s behavioural quirks, but Sudjic’s manner, crisp and vivid, soon allows her oddities to feel natural.
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Sudjic writes with cool detachment. She doesn’t use speech marks but her dialogue remains sharp, and she portrays Anya’s fractured mindset intensely but not in a way that becomes overbearing.
She is a writer finely attuned to the nuance and doubleness of language: when Anya, who does not consider herself to be someone who loses belongings, leaves her mobile phone and an important notebook on the plane and visits the lost property desk to retrieve them, she thinks “about how recovery is the opposite of loss, and how the word, in my adopted language at least, contained the two senses – to have returned and to heal – often, though not always, one and the same thing”.
Later, in Sarajevo, taken aback by her mother’s decline into senility and her own feeling of detachment from her closest relatives, she longs to be back in London: “It struck me then why it is that the English phrase – to drive home – means to make someone understand.”
But where is home for a child who was made to leave the only place they had known, and who, upon returning as an adult, feels that place to be not only foreign but almost unreal? What do we lose when we leave something behind, even if we come to find something new with which to replace it? These questions begin to seep into the essence of how Anya thinks and acts. As she grows increasingly detached from reality, Sudjic’s writing becomes uneasy and visceral.
Her most memorable descriptions relate to Anya’s strange aversion to soft fruits: clementine segments offered by Luke’s mother; a plum rolling underneath an aeroplane seat; a childhood friend remembering even after many years not to order tomatoes from a restaurant menu. “The excuse I usually gave was not a lie, exactly,” Anya acknowledges. “I had been eating plums gathered from the base of my grandmother’s tree as a child. I had accidentally picked up part of a bird, ripped open, the greasy remains now heaving with life. I had been horrified by the sticky mess, its texture in my hand, the apprehension of anarchy.” When, as a child, Anya first tried tinned pineapple chunks, “the longed-for fruit had the texture of human flesh”.
These eerie references point deep into Anya’s core, to the traits that she will carry with her no matter how uncertain she feels of her place in the world. In these inexplicable attributes we find the truest sense of a person, and so when these qualities – more than geographical borders or human relationships – start to slip, we are most vulnerable.
Bloomsbury, 260pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?