“My writing often feels like a struggle to communicate some danger,” Olivia Sudjic says in her extended essay Exposure, the follow-up and postmortem to her debut novel, Sympathy. Her second, Asylum Road, is narrated by a young woman, Anya, whose detached observations of her own actions and inner monologue feel as if they are struggling to convey an underlying menace. Anya is neurotic, paranoid; she spends her nights arguing on the internet about Brexit: “It was not the specifics of opposing arguments that upset me, but that the things I held on to, which kept me from being sucked back into the past, were coming loose.”
The past she wants to outrun is the legacy of the Balkan war, which she and her sister Daria escaped as children, leaving behind a brother who later killed himself. When Anya’s boyfriend, Luke, proposes, she takes him on a road trip to meet her estranged family in Sarajevo, where they find a region still conflicted about how to come to terms with its history. Authors are assassinated for writing about the war; Anya’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is trapped perpetually in the time of the siege, convinced they are still being shelled. Sudjic makes the parallels with a light touch, but to watch a country fragment into smaller and increasingly exclusive nationalisms has a chilling resonance for Anya, who has witnessed the logical conclusion of such division. Her prospective in-laws are not merely ardent Brexiters but Cornish nationalists, despite not being native Cornish: “She was the kind of mother who refused to knock. A fan of borders but not boundaries.”
Sudjic’s writing is spare, pared-back; as Anya’s relationship and security unravels in the wake of the unsuccessful trip home, her self-scrutiny remains clear-eyed and unsparing. The sense of quiet threat that pervades the novel, of something deeply unsettling building beneath the surface, finally erupts in the last pages with a bleak inevitability. Asylum Road shows Sudjic confidently expanding the reach of her fiction, with an unerring instinct for asking timely questions.
• Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply