The Writes of Woman Interviews Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy

“Origin stories make us feel secure; untangling them can undo us.”

Twenty-three-year-old Alice Hare doesn’t know who she is; adopted, mixed-race, born in New York but having lived in London and Tokyo, with an absent father and a mother she doesn’t get on with, she sets out for birthplace and her adopted paternal grandmother, Silvia.

In the end I guess it was that which hooked me – the idea of another beginning, begun right. Although Sylvia had offered to help me understand at least part of my origins (not my birth parents, written out entirely except for lost adoption forms), I wanted to build – half reconstruction, half my own design – a version that belonged entirely to me.

We know from the very beginning of the novel that Alice has become obsessed with Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer living in New York. As we meet Alice she’s waiting to see whether Mizuko accepts her ‘Follow’ request on an unidentified social media site (it could be one of many). As Alice relates the events in hindsight, we know that Mizuko was ill, infested with a parasite, at the time of Alice’s excruciating wait; we also know that there is a remaining distance in their relationship, although it will be the end of the novel before the reasons for this are revealed. What comes between these two points is the tale of a young woman who, via a number of coincidences, finds herself obsessed with an older women. Whether she wants to be Mizuko or be with Mizuko isn’t clear to Alice herself. The key to this unknowing seems to lie in the fact that the version of Mizuko Alice knows is the one she’s created via her internet stalking, she actually spends very little time with the woman herself.

When we met, we were both online constantly. In fact, I would say I was online constantly because she was, and I was monitoring her usage. For her, the Internet was primarily a tool of self-promotion and reinforcement for her multiple selves while for me it became a tool designed for the sole purpose of observing her. It was the only way I could have been brave enough to approach her in real life, having dissected the pictorial equivalent of her DNA in advance.

What Sudjic has created is a multi-layered commentary on the impact of the internet on our lives, particularly those considered ‘Digital Natives’ (born after 1980 and having never known life without internet access). Rather than bringing us relevant information faster than ever, in Sudjic’s world the internet brings information overload and few answers. She combines Alice’s quest with comments on the Hadron Collider (Alice’s adopted father worked on an early version) and the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Alice is in an interesting character; while she’s largely passive, she’s also not particularly likeable and that strikes me as a brave decision in this climate where readers (and some publishers) rail against unlikeable women in novels (by unlikeable I mean like real human women). Sudjic allows her to be complex and unsure of herself. She’s trying to work out who she might be and she does so by appropriating someone else’s story, or at least a version of it.

Sympathy is an impressive debut: complex, bold, intelligent, unafraid to tackle big ideas. If Sudjic doesn’t always quite pull it off, it’s forgivable for the sheer scope of her undertaking; she means business and it’s impossible not to applaud her ambition. Sympathy’s well worth your time and I’m delighted to see a young female novelist begin her career with such aplomb.

In the first of my new series, The Writes of Woman Interviews… I was thrilled to be able to speak to Olivia Sudjic about the book and hear her read from the novel.

(Apologies for the quality of the picture; I am learning on the job and messed up a setting. If it’s too excruciating to watch, there is an audio only version below.)

You can buy Sympathy from Amazon or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy of Sympathy and Tabitha Pelly and Olivia Sudjic for the interview.