Recently graduated from university, and with no idea what to do next, twenty-three-year-old Alice Hare accepts the invitation of her adopted grandmother Silvia to come and stay with her in New York. Entranced by the big city, she falls in with a new surrogate family. Then there’s Mizuko, a Japanese-born writer a decade her senior, who Alice discovers on Instagram. An obsession soon blooms, and Alice becomes determined to meet her IRL. She’ll do whatever it takes to be a part of Mizuko’s life. Whatever it takes…
Often, when authors try to incorporate social media into their stories, it doesn’t work. They either approach it from an outsider’s perspective, making their prose sound unnatural, or are so concerned with the damage social media is doing to society that they seem like puritanical dinosaurs.
In Sympathy, first-time novelist Olivia Sudjic deftly avoids both avenues. That’s not to say that she comes out in favour of social media; the whole book is damning of the effect it’s had on us all. Sudjic though, tackles the subject from the point-of-view of an insider, a millennial. She understands the delicious instant gratification of a ‘like’. She grasps how curating an online self can feel essential when your real self is falling apart. She comprehends the agony of waiting for an update, for a reply.
Sudjic’s writing is beautiful. Sympathy is a literary book filled with sensuous similes and vivid prose. It pulls you so far into Alice’s world, it takes a while to reacclimatise to your own after putting it down. Her descriptions of strolling around New York City are particularly evocative:
‘I had no more itinerary than the blossoms descending towards the gutter or alighting on the arms of benches. I floated down every morning from the Upper East Side, ending up around SoHo or City Hall. I liked gliding like a robot on the ocean floor, from point to point on the city grid. When I came home, exhausted, I would stick my head into Silvia’s den and holler triumphantly “New York is the best place in the world!”’
When Sympathy falters, as it does only occasionally, it is in the plotting. Alice is recounting her story after it has already finished; as such, she tends to move around in time in a way that is not always clear to the reader. With a story this dense, and characters connected in so many different ways, it doesn’t take much to get lost.
Yet you get the sense that this is somewhat intentional. As you read, it becomes ever clearer that Alice is not a stable person. Her obsession with Mizuko, and her addled theory that they share some deep, cosmic connection overwhelms her life. She doesn’t seem to know fact from fiction. By making the timeline muddled, Sudjic puts us in the same confused headspace as Alice. It’s effective, even if it sometimes gets a little frustrating.
Clammy, claustrophobic and compulsively readable, Sympathy announces Olivia Sudjic as an author to watch.
Sympathy is published by Pushkin Press on 26 April 2018