Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic: ‘Noli me tangere’

Cover image for Asylum Road by Olivia SudjicOlivia Sudjic’s Sympathy has been on my TBR list for as long as it’s been published. No idea why I haven’t got around to buying a copy but when I spotted Asylum Road in the publishing schedules I put my hand up, attracted partly by the multitude of glowing puffs from the likes of Megan Hunter and Daisy Johnson. Sudjic’s novel follows Anya who finds herself engaged to Luke during their Provencal holiday rather than alone after the break-up she’d anticipated.

Our arguments were mostly silent, or silent on his side. Often in the dark, lying in bed so neither face could see the other. Not an argument then but a pressure

Anya and Luke have been together for five years having met at the wedding of a mutual friend. They’ve been to many more since – Anya craving the security she imagines marriage would offer despite Luke’s apparent lack of interest. Anya left Sarajevo when she was a child having endured much of the long siege some of us may remember seeing covered by TV news bulletins in the ‘90s, feeling like voyeurs. She’s half-heartedly in the midst of a PhD thesis, working a variety of part-time jobs which leave her dependent on Luke. Theirs is a tricky relationship: Anya constantly navigating Luke’s moods and taciturnity, beset with paranoia and self-consciousness, aware that Luke is in control. When he produces a ring, she feels relief but no joy. A trip to Cornwall to plan the wedding with Luke’s parents only exacerbates her feelings of being an outsider. She decides she must introduce Luke to the family she’s barely visited since she went to live with her aunt in Glasgow. Once in the Balkans, the balance of power tilts subtly – Luke doesn’t understand the language or the nuances of Anya’s relationships with friends and family. Shortly after their return, he suggests they take a break, the first in a series of crises that will see Anya’s grip on reality loosening.

Weddings seem like hubris and perhaps they invite disaster. But I wanted the institution of marriage. To change my surname to Luke’s and be shielded by it

Sudjic’s novel is extraordinarily powerful. Anya’s voice is careful, her constant efforts to interpret Luke’s silences and unexplained absences indicative of this strained, unhealthy relationship in which one craves the security she hopes will anaesthetise her trauma while the other seems incapable of connection. Her disarray is eloquently conveyed – her forgetting of crucial objects, not least her engagement ring, her painful anxiety and feelings of not belonging, discomfiting. Sudjic’s writing is elegantly spare, a great deal left unsaid yet vividly evident. Words are very important in this novel, each one carefully chosen. As Anya’s frail control slips, so her mind becomes more disordered and her behaviour more rash. It’s an impressive piece of fiction, thoroughly deserving of all that glowing praise heaped upon it.

Bloomsbury Publishing: London 9781526617385 240 pages Hardback

27 thoughts on “Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic: ‘Noli me tangere’”

    1. It certainly is and harrowing at times but highly recommended, nevertheless.

      In retrospect, I’d agree about Astral Travel although I found myself carried along by it. Glad you enjoyed it.

  1. Yes, it’s very good! Has a touch of that elegant coldness that doesn’t always do it for me in contemporary fiction, but I think it makes sense given Anya’s past. And the casual selfishness of Luke is well drawn.

    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed it! Sudjic does a fine job in conveying both a desperate need for stability and a disorderd mind with Anya. There’s a satisfying tipping of the balance with Luke when they are in Sarajevo.

      1. I loved the Sarajevo scenes. Her poor mad mother whose mental stasis in the war period actually seems to make her happy and give her some sense of stability…

  2. I hadn’t heard of this one until I read your review but it’s now on my wishlist. This sounds so good, especially where the power balance tilts in Anya’s favour once she’s back home with her family and how before that she was trying to read Luke’s silences and interpret those.

    1. Not an easy read as I’m sure you’ve gathered, Kath, but I hope you enjoy it. She captures the emotional fallout from trauma vividly particularly the way it feeds into relationships.

      1. No, it didn’t sound like a particularly light read but it’s something I’m interested in and I managed Shuggie Bain with only light scarring, so I’d like to give this a go.

          1. Yes! I was absolutely thrilled when it won. That poor wee mite – I wanted to reach in and give him a big hug for everything he lived through, and it was heartbreaking how alcohol dominated his mother’s life and prevented her from being able to provide Shuggie with what he craved and needed most of all on a consistent basis.

          2. He did indeed. I finished reading it and felt only hopeful that Shuggie would be okay and he infused his writing with real affection for his characters and showed the love and humour they experienced alongside the deprivation, disappointments and setbacks. It was masterfully done and I need to go back and read it again to find out more precisely how he did that.

  3. This sounds very impressive, a finely-crafted exploration of the tensions in the relationship. (At first, I was getting this author mixed up with Sofka Zinovieff, possibly because she’s also published by Bloomsbury. Hopefully they’re reasonably well differentiated in my mind now!)

  4. I like the sound of the polished, exacting prose. But I don’t see that I’ve marked any of her books TBR, despite the fact that she seems to be well known to many readers here; I wonder if she’s just not readily available (yet?) overseas.

  5. The switch in the dynamics of the relationship is a clever idea. I’ve seen Sudjic’s name around a lot and thought I had something by her in my TBR but doesn’t seem like it

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