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Posted on 6 Apr 2021 in Fiction |

OLIVIA SUDJIC Asylum Road. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Olivia Sudjic’s second novel ranges from London to Sarajevo and explores displacement, exile, and refuge.

Too often, the quotations an author chooses to preface their book seem to be put there to puzzle the reader. The two quotations chosen by Olivia Sudjic for this story, however, offer clear and direct clues to its contents.  The first refers to the way we live in the surprising amount of space between our fears. The second refers to the spectre of the Balkans which still haunts Western culture.

‘Sometimes it felt like the murders kept us together,’ says Anya, whose thoughts we follow over the next few months of her life. The murders turnout to be podcasts that take her mind off other things: ‘our real problems’; ‘my thoughts’; tunnels, like the Channel Tunnel, which she and her partner Luke are travelling through; nauseating anxiety, and irrational fears.

Olivia Sudjic takes us inside Anya’s head and it is clear from the beginning of the book that Anya is a bundle of insecurities. She constantly watches Luke, trying to gauge his moods so that she can respond to them in ways that will please him, and she interprets his frequent silences and his questions as criticism. When she wakes in a hotel room in France, where they have gone for a break, and finds him absent, she fears he will not return, although his phone and clothes are still in the room and she knows he often does this.

My phone said it was midnight, which meant it was our anniversary. On the first one I remembered feeling warm, insulated from the outside world. The second, I kept sensing what I thought was a phantom draught. The third I saw a detailed map of hairline cracks spreading across the table between us. I did not mark our fourth but waited to see if he would. He did not. Today was our fifth. I’d reminded him when we booked the holiday.

Her friend, Christopher, to whom she often turns for advice and support, tells her that these tensions are just part of what he disparagingly calls ‘monogamous cishet relationships’, especially her sense that ‘sex was a job, and not doing it the one way I could hold power’.

When Luke does return, his agitation makes her fear that he is going to break up with her: instead, he presents her with a diamond ring that had belonged to his grandmother.

Now that Luke has proposed to her, Anya remembers attending the weddings of others, where her ringless fingers made her feel ‘like a stray among them’. Now she has a ring of her own, which was what she had always wanted: ‘To change my surname to Luke’s and be shielded by it.’

Little by little, through Anya’s thoughts and memories, we learn that she grew up in Sarajevo in the Balkans during the terrifying siege of the 1990s. She was eight when her parents sent her and her sister to live with an aunt in Glasgow – a ‘casting out’, Anya calls it, and she thinks of the ‘convoy of tourist buses commandeered for evacuation. Most of the passengers were unaccompanied children.’ She remembers, too, her first traumatic day at Glasgow’s Mosspark Primary School, when other children taunted her and all she wanted was ‘to be blonde and otherwise hairless with a name like Amy’.

Anya, now, is 31. She has a university degree in English and she is currently, off and on, researching and writing her PhD, but she thinks of this as a refuge – a ‘black-hole’ that she can crawl into when her anxieties threaten to overwhelm her.

To announce their engagement to their parents, Anya and Luke travel first to Devon, then to Sarajevo. In Devon, Anya sees moss-covered roofs, drystone walls, ‘narrow lanes with trees on either side of tall hedgerows’, but also a cottage wall daubed with the words ENGLISH OUT. Like any visit to prospective in-laws, the atmosphere is friendly but tense. Luke’s controlling mother wants to discuss the wedding and has chosen the church she thinks suitable. Anya tries ‘not to look at her crowded mouth. Full of overlapping teeth like a shark.’ In the toilet she sees a framed photograph of ‘all that whole extended family, all smiles’.

The contrast between the bucolic Devon villages and the war-scarred Balkan cities where Anya’s friends and family live is extreme but she sees how both have border issues and reject outsiders. As they go through Sarajevo, Anya sees, through Luke’s eyes, the scarred facades, the pock-marks around most windows, the shops selling souvenirs made from shrapnel. Anya’s family live in a tiny, crowded flat. Her mother has Alzheimer’s and is stuck in her own version of the siege, convinced they are being shelled. She does not recognise Anya. Her father’s sense of humour is ‘unnerving’ and Luke doesn’t understand his jokes. And Anya’s sister, Daria, who now looks after her mother, resents Anya and is bitter and antagonistic. In the bathroom, Anya finds a bleached and faded photograph of her mother, young and smiling, holding her as a baby.  Seeing her now, she thinks:

… she looked very small and boxed-in. Her face unfamiliar thanks to the way her hair had been clipped back, and the new white teeth that appeared when she smiled. ….

She appeared to confuse Luke with Drago at first, rubbing his arm distractedly. [Drago was Anya’s brother, who had committed suicide during the war.] Then from the greetings Daria translated, she seemed to decide we were being visited by another foreign journalist.

She wants to know if you know Christine Amanpour, Daria said. She thinks you work for CNN.

I stared at my sister in disbelief. For years until Drago died, we avoided talking about the war – quickly tiring of the same bad news. After he died it was never spoken of at all. Daria stared back as if to say yes, this is what we are dealing with now, what I am dealing with while you are not here.

In this unhappy family situation, memories which Anya constantly tries to repress surface again.

In the middle of the night I could no longer bear it and insisted that we leave without saying goodbye. We would check into a hotel before tomorrow’s flight. I could not spend another second in that place without imploding.

When Anya’s relationship with Luke unravels, she becomes depressed and anorexic.

Christopher invented the game What Can Anya Eat? The answer was usually one small plate of cucumber, thinly shaved.

He brought things to me for the first few days, then insisted I come to the kitchen, like a stray he was patiently rehoming. The game was satisfying, he said. It was satisfying for me, too, to feel myself wasting away.

When Anya’s oldest Bosnian friend, the assertive and successful Mira, turns up in London, she persuades Anya to move with her to a communal house in the appropriately named Asylum Road, although the asylum referred to is old almshouses on the surrounding land. Anya seems to become more self-reliant, but a visit to her old university for an alumni event, and a deliberately engineered sexual encounter with an old boyfriend there, is told in the third person, as if she has dissociated herself from it. When Anya hears that her mother has died, she begins to dream again, and vivid disturbing memories return: 

The past kept intruding. We were sick to death of it. I am not welcome in my own home. My own country. Again and again this happens. I seem to be the common denominator. This realisation is, at first, the end of a cigarette in the dark, then a train sucking me toward it as it passes through my station.

In the last pages of the book she imagines being at her mother’s grave, her mother as ‘cardboard figure’, distraught, remembering ‘the one she didn’t send away’, the son who committed suicide. ‘I no longer feel the need to hold myself together’, Anya thinks, ‘parts of me had been unfrozen through fucking’, but what is revealed is ‘the raw, jellied pink meat at the centre of things’ and her mental state is increasingly disturbed.  In spite of this, the final paragraph of the book is unexpected and stunning.

Asylum Road is a powerful study of displacement and of what it feels like to be a survivor in a foreign culture. Sudjic’s prose is taut and precise. Her skill is to make us feel as Anya feels, and Anya, for all her psychological problems, is a likeable and sometimes wryly funny narrator. In a world in which refugees, exiles and resettlement in a foreign culture are constantly in the news, experiencing some of this though Anya is a thought-provoking and moving experience.

Olivia Sudjic Asylum Road Bloomsbury 2021 PB 240pp $29.99 

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Asylum Road from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

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