"Sometimes it felt like the murders kept us together." As opening lines go, you can’t do much better than Asylum Road. The realisation, a few sentences later, that it is not in fact a Bonnie-and-Clyde style crime spree preserving narrator Anja’s fragmenting relationship with her boyfriend Luke, but a shared addiction to true crime podcasts, comes not as an anticlimax, but as a further wave of pleasure – at the sheer audacity of such merciless, reader-skewering writing.
It is the second novel from 33-year-old Olivia Sudjic, whose 2017 debut Sympathy was crowned "the first great Instagram Novel" by The New Republic. That book – a feverish, surreal account of a young graduate’s social-media-driven obsession with an older woman – shares with Asylum Road a rootless young protagonist with a painful, obscured family history and a bone-dry narrative voice. (Anja’s monthly phone calls to her parents are "as unremarkable as menstruation," she tells us early on.)
But the resemblance ends there. The world has moved on since 2017 and so have Sudjic’s themes: Asylum Road is not about technology, but Brexit and a toxic romantic relationship. Written in the wake of the referendum, it approaches European politics through the lens of Sudjic’s own family history – she is British but her paternal grandparents, to whom the novel is dedicated, emigrated from the former Yugoslavia after the Second World War.
In the novel, the psychological aftermath of the Brexit vote is beginning to corrode Anja’s painstakingly cultivated, Cambridge-educated sense of assimilation.
While rarely addressing it head on, the novel brims with echoes of its great political preoccupation; images of nationalism, invasion, and parasitism, particularly from the animal kingdom, abound. The growing sense of unease that its political vision generates, of suppressed but violent urges to expel or invade, difficult to pin to specific characters, chills the novel like a fridge.
The most intense and alarming boundary friction resides not in the political, but the romantic landscape. Anja and Luke’s relationship is a portrait of toxic love in crisis, full of beautifully observed power shifts, silent battles, and small betrayals.
Asylum Road is also the work of a literary voice maturing.