Asylum Road is nothing if not a fable for our fractured times — in which, there can often seem to be no refuge from threats of dissolution and rupture. Olivia Sudjic’s second novel, published by Bloomsbury in January 2021, is set in the shadowlands of Brexit Britain: the pall of Trump’s America extends across the pond, and the penumbral aegis of the EU recedes steadily over the Channel. Its protagonist, Anya, a woman in her early thirties, is herself caught in an obscure medias res. She is, on the one hand, fleeing the unspeakable memories of what she endured as a young child during the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia; and, on the other, she is poised at the threshold of a union to which she is not sure that she is well-suited. Sudjic’s ombré text, which darkens incrementally from sunny young love on the French Riviera to a nervous breakdown on a black London night, is masterful in its pacing and subtlety. Asylum Road is a gripping blend of character study and psychological thriller that reads like a macabre love letter to a generation that was told the fairy tale version of globalization only to find that it ends anything but happily.
The novel’s plot is triangulated around a trilogy of journeys, which eventually culminate in a collision (both literal and metaphoric) between Anya’s present and her buried past. In the first chapter, she and Luke drive to coastal Provence, where they rent a villa and sleepwalk into the engagement that will ultimately become a waking nightmare. The proposal itself involves no mention of marriage, just the mute acceptance of a “yellow diamond,” which “had been his grandmother’s”: “Now, he said, sounding unconvinced, it would be mine.” (There is something about the listlessness of their attachment that makes me wonder whether Sudjic chose the name Luke because of its etymological links to the Old English “lew,” meaning “tepid”).
Once back in Luke’s London flat, where they live together while Anya finishes her PhD, he announces that his parents have invited them to their thatched cottage in Cornwall, where Anya — whose family survived nearly four consecutive years of bombing, which left 14,000 Bosnians dead, by living in a basement — always feels as if she has stepped inside a “British children’s book”. This time, they travel separately: Luke leaves first, by car, and Anya (whose lack of a license is a recurring source of tension in the novel) joins him a week later on the train. When she arrives in Mousehole, we meet her insufferable future in-laws, Anne and Michael, whose snobbery, xenophobia, and narrow-mindedness are as dim and suffocating as the cellar she would give anything to forget. They had had a temporary rift with their son the previous summer, due to opposing views on the referendum, during which she “had never felt closer to him” — their ambivalence about Luke’s choice of partner is a barely concealed secret. On the last morning of their stay, while she lingers in bed, Anya accidentally overhears Anne and Michael through the open window. As “they move with secateurs along the trellis against the wall,” snippets of their conversation float upward:
I put my hands over my ears, then pulled the covers over my head but could still detect certain words…
If they come,
I told you,
Stuck with it darling.
Anya envisions each word as a round of sniper fire. On the ride home, she offers to bring Luke back with her to her hometown to meet her family for the first time — an overture that precipitates their finale.
In the summer of 1914, the assassination of the heirs to the Austro-Hungarian throne — Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie — at the southern edge of their empire triggered the first World War. While Asylum Road avoids any explicit allusions to this iconic historical inflection point, it reverberates throughout the novel in ways that are impossible to ignore. Anya and Luke may emerge physically unscathed from their postbellum pilgrimage to the twenty-first-century Balkans, but it sends dominoes toppling toward another kind of catastrophe.
The first to fall is Anya’s loss — on the flight to Split, Croatia — of an A4 notebook containing “everything, everything. Everything for my, every — all in there. Actually — too — but mainly —”. Earning her PhD is the apex of Anya’s broader assimilation efforts, and in the notebook were all of the thoughts and ideas related to her doctoral thesis. At one point, she recalls a question posed about her chosen field of study during her undergraduate interview at Cambridge University: “why English?” There is, indeed, a Coppola-esque “lost in translation” quality to the vague, untethered state of her existence, which is mostly spent trying (and failing) to write her dissertation. The notebook is her only mooring, so there is something particularly satisfying (even Freudian) about it being left in a seat’s back pocket on a plane. But there is an emancipatory dimension to the “devastation” it causes: Anya’s investment in a degree with plenty of cultural prestige but few day-to-day fulfillments and professional prospects is the perfect embodiment of the ways in which her dogged pursuit of belonging (via education) only amplifies her sense of alienation. Being forced to let go of the notebook is a step toward recovering, by uncovering, her “truth.”
Sudjic’s interest in subterranean imagery is particularly fascinating within this context, as Anya’s suffering during the Yugoslav wars — most of which she spent underground — laid the foundations for her attenuated sense of self. While the scars of this trauma are invisible, her refusal to excavate it has left her on the psychological ‘brink.’ Burrowing rodents are a salient motif: in an early chapter, Anya helps Anne rout the moles from her garden; and in one of the final scenes, she tosses a scalded mouse into the trash. They function, quite brilliantly, not only as symbols of repression but as clues (like in one clever scene in which Anya unwittingly solves a crossword puzzle with this synonym for “shibboleth”) to what she endured: a protracted absence of natural light, claustrophobic quarters, dank air, the need to forage, often for roots, in order to ward off starvation. They even seem to invoke the nature of Anya’s escape, as it seems likely that she and her sister, Daria, were smuggled out via the tunnel that connected central Sarajevo to UN territory on its outskirts. Then, when Anya develops a UTI immediately after sleeping with her college boyfriend, Ed (in the only chapter recounted in the third-person), the self-estranging implications of violence — in this case, sexual — are again tied to the (dys)function of a narrow passageway. (The double entendre of a blocked urethra is a particularly Sudjic-ian move.)
Rawness is another important trope, which gestures both toward what Anya is trying to shield herself against by avoiding her memories (“the uncooked meat at the center of things”) and toward the brutal content of those memories themselves: carnage, genocide, butchered flesh in all its grotesqueness and temptation. Fruit pulp is especially noxious to Anya, for reasons that involve a childhood experience of “[picking] up part of a bird, ripped open, the greasy remains now heaving with life,” while in the midst of “eating plums gathered from the base of [her] grandmother’s tree”. The novel ends with Anya crouching down to devour a hunk of sausage she discovers in the fridge.
Visceral is also an apt description of Sudjic’s prose — which is often gutting.
Like Anya’s binomial homeland, which is always referred to by the acronym BiH (as if to emphasize its unwieldiness), the novel teems with doubles. Couples, both romantic and filial, are everywhere: Anya and Luke; Anne and Michael; Anya’s late brother, Drago, and his adolescent girlfriend, Mira; Anya’s parents; Daria and her daughter, Hana; Anya’s aunt and cousin, Nikolaj; Anya and her unborn child. Even those who are supposedly single — Anya’s best friend, Christopher; her college lover, Eddie; Mira — eventually end up in a twosome with Anja, whether sexual or cohabitational, or somewhere in the middle (Anja “always had a crush on Mira,” who becomes her roommate after she and Luke break up). But there are also more covert or implicit twins, who often resemble doppelgangers: Anya and Anne, Luke and Eddie, Anya and Daria, etc. These suggest, of course, the potential for every life to have been otherwise, the always latent possibility that things could have turned out differently. But they also lend an exterior aspect to the interior schism of trauma, whose capacity to split us apart — through dementia, suicide, psychosis — is the novel’s true subject.
This deutero-philic quality of the novel — its fascination with and commitment to the “other” — reflects, on the one hand, the ways in which the Balkans have always been marginalized within Europe. But it also seems designed to indict the web of false dichotomies spun to justify this alterity: between civilization and barbarism, sophistication and primitivism, “progress” and “backwardness.” Sudjic lays bare the seamlessness with which putative opposites collapse into one another. The permeability of the membrane between life and death is embodied in Drago’s shrapnel collection, in the fetus that Anya is not sure she wants to keep, even in the ampersand connecting B(osnia) and H(erzegovina) in its abbreviated form. Nothing more sturdy than a layer of skin, an amniotic sac, or mere conjunction holds us together. The divisions between disparity and identity, sanity and madness, democracy and authoritarianism, peace and war, safety and precarity are hardly stable.
The epigraph to Asylum Road is a quote from Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova, “a specter is haunting western culture — the specter of the Balkans,” and there are many ways to interpret it as a ghost story. One of the less obvious ones, perhaps — but central, I think, given Sudjic’s interest in the agita of writing, especially as a woman, which she explores in her splendid long-form essay, Exposure, published by Peninsula Press in 2018 — is that this is a novel at least, in part, about the anxiety of influence. In Cornwall, Anne pointedly leaves a local poet’s latest collection (variations on the theme of china clay mining) on Anya’s bedside table, and we learn that Luke’s favorite book is Lord of the Flies (Anne is fond of reminding her that William Golding also hailed from England’s south-west peninsula). But Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, while never mentioned, was the Cornish subtext whose presence made itself most vividly felt to this particular reader (whether or not this was a conscious intention on the author’s part is, I think, precisely the point: the phantoms that dwell in texts are differently visible depending on who’s looking). Manderley is the palimpsest over which Luke’s childhood home is superimposed, and in his mercurialness and Anne’s coldness are vestiges of Maxim de Winter and Mrs. Danvers. And the house’s constant “infestations”, from bees to badgers, echo to the restless spirit of Du Maurier’s eponymous dead heroine. On the way to Croatia, Luke immerses himself in Black Lamb, Grey Falcon while Anya naps: “he’d asked if he could borrow it, and I’d said yes without admitting I’d never read it. I’d filled whole shelves with books about the Balkans but couldn’t bring myself to open any”. For Anya, the question is how to make sense of the private dimensions of collective crisis. For Sudjic, it seems to entail finding an individual style in the wake of predecessors who both inspire and intimidate.
So far, she is doing a breathtaking job.
Elizabeth Brogden is a writer and editor currently based in Toronto. Her articles and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Studies in American Fiction, Modern Language Notes, Studies in the Novel, and Journal of Victorian Culture. She holds a PhD in literature from Johns Hopkins University and is at work on her first novel.