Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic review – inside the mind of a survivor

A young woman is haunted by memories of Sarajevo in this powerful study of trauma and psychological disintegration

In 2018, Olivia Sudjic spent two months alone in Brussels. Her debut novel, Sympathy, had been published to critical acclaim and she hoped to make progress with a second. Instead, she found herself in the grip of an agonising spiral of anxiety and self-doubt, unable to write, unable almost to think. She later wrote about the experience in a long-form essay, Exposure, a scrupulous examination of the pressures of social media and the personal scrutiny to which she believes female writers are particularly subjected. In that essay Sudjic argues that her periodic episodes of anxiety, while agonising, are necessary to her writing: the writer’s duty, she contends, “is to seek out chaos, or the very thing of which she is most afraid”.

In Asylum Road, she appears to have done exactly that. Anya, a twentysomething PhD student in London, grew up during the brutal siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. The siege, lasting three and a half years, was the longest in modern history. Snipers surrounded the city, picking off targets; buildings were shelled daily. There was little food, water, no electricity or heat. Residents burned furniture to keep warm and foraged for wild plants including dandelion roots. By the time the siege was finally lifted, nearly 14,000 people were dead.

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