Olivia Sudjic’s second novel begins with a couple on the road, driving from London to Provence. This is not the road of the title and it leads not to shelter but to an unlikely engagement. Unlikely, because Luke doesn’t communicate with Anya and, at times, they’re so awkward it’s as if they don’t even like each other. But according to the social scripts that govern our lives, engagement is the necessary next step, and so they take it.
To celebrate, the couple visit Luke’s parents in Cornwall, where social niceties barely conceal their disdain for Anya's foreignness. Luke’s mother, Anne, wars with moles in her garden, does not believe in global warming and is a staunch Brexiteer, though the kind “who refused to knock. A fan of borders but not boundaries”.
Overhearing a conversation between Luke’s parents' suspicion surrounding her family forces Anya into a course of action that she would rather avoid – returning to Sarajevo. Having escaped as a child, and becoming outwardly assimilated in the years since, the return threatens to expose disorder lurking under the surface of her life. Arriving there from Split (pun doubtless intended), the couple take an old road that ends suddenly, and they narrowly avoid driving over the edge of a precipice. Once again, it is Luke in the driving seat.
Sudjic’s prose is exacting and controlled. Her bilingual narrator is attentive to language at all times, sensitive to what is simultaneously concealed and exposed. Before leaving Sarajevo, Anya has a revelation. “It struck me then why it is that the English phrase – to drive home – means to make someone understand”. But Anya hasn’t driven anywhere – not yet. And it’s not until she finally gets behind the wheel that the full force of this observation is realised.
Asylum Road is about the precise feeling of helplessness that results from the pressure of societal expectations, but it is also a thoughtful exploration of history and trauma. Brexit looms, but never dominates. The cruelty of borders is felt, fragmentation and division highlighted, but the novel is free of heavy-handed commentary.
An intense but rewarding read, I often return to a moment in the first half, when Anya loses her thesis notebook on the plane to Split. It is only once she has passed through doors above which is written “DO NOT STOP, DO NOT RETURN” that she realises. Luke encourages her to move on through the airport but she later resents this. “It seemed preferable to be trapped in limbo between the two security doors than here, free, without the lost items”.
The revelation of loss comes at the point of no return, and freedom is tainted as a result. When asked by a member of staff what is in the notebook, she says, “Everything. My life”. Yet in this moment of acute loss, speaking another language, she recognises the possibility of power. Luke “did not have a mother tongue with which to exclude me now, except in the native language of his body. Here the scales had tipped a little”. The horrific irony of the ‘take back control’ narratives of Brexit bubble to the surface.
The ending may come as a surprise initially, but, when you consider the agonising, simpering build-up, it seems like the only one possible, because “it was better to be complicit in the destruction”. If Asylum Road is about taking control in a world that strips individuals of agency, then it is also about the devastating consequences of a desire to control. It is a wonderful, haunting achievement.
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