A couple drive from London to coastal Provence. Anya is preoccupied with what she feels is a relationship on the verge; unequal, precarious. Luke, reserved, stoic, gives away nothing. As the sun sets one evening, he proposes, and they return to London engaged.
But planning a wedding does little to settle Anya’s unease. As a child, she escaped from Sarajevo, and the idea of security is as alien now as it was then. When social convention forces Anya to return, she begins to change. The past she sought to contain for as long as she can remember resurfaces, and the hot summer builds to a startling climax.
Lean, sly and unsettling, Asylum Road is about the many borders governing our lives: between men and women, assimilation and otherness, nations, families, order and chaos.
What happens, and who do we become, when they break down?
Just to get in a little name-drop here, this book was recommended to me by author Heidi James, whose novel The Sound Mirror was one of my top reads of 2020. Many thanks to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for sending me a proof copy – it took me a while to get round to it, but I am so glad I had the chance to read this brilliant novel.
Asylum Road feels very different. It is very much its own (sharp-clawed) beast. The writing is spare and taut; the sentences cut like a knife and bleed truths. No thought or feeling is deemed too uncomfortable to probe: there is a needling quality to the prose as it pushes deeper and deeper beneath the surface. The relationship between the protagonist and her boyfriend/fiance Luke is almost unbearably tense. There is a veneer of normality to their interactions which belies the constant second-guessing and agonising that Anya goes through. Luke is prickly and difficult and detached, and it is sometimes painful to watch Anya desperately trying to forge a connection. I disliked him intensely, but Sudjic explores the dynamics at play between them in a way which is both fascinating and rings terrifyingly true.
Anya herself is such a complex and intriguing character. I don’t think I have ever encountered a fictional character with quite such a problematic relationship with the concept of ‘home’. Themes of trauma, exile, escape, and loss circle her story like vultures, and the (mostly) first person narrative aligns the reader so closely with her inner unease that I often found myself reading with my breath held and my jaw clenched. Some of the most powerful and devastating scenes take place when she visits her family: there is none of the warmth or comforting familiarity that we might expect, and the reality of the short time she spends with her parents and sister is in itself traumatic. It is masterfully done – never have I felt so tense when reading about a family reunion!
Asylum Road is a shocking, powerful, intelligent novel that subtly ratchets up the tension and quietly, menacingly builds its landscape out of the main character’s psyche. The prose is so tightly controlled that the explosive ending comes as a delicious shock. I was left reeling at the end of this book, and utterly in awe of Olivia Sudjic’s razor-sharp writing. I highly recommend this novel if you enjoy reading psychologically insightful stories that scratch unused parts of your mind. An oustanding, startlingly original book.
Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic will be published by Bloomsbury on 21st January 2021 and is available to preorder here.