Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic, book review: It’s a gripping odyssey into one woman’s online-addled inner life

This impressive debut novel 'Sympathy' is sometimes confusing, but takes a smart look at intimacy and interaction in the digital age

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The Independent Culture

Newly arrived in Manhattan and staying with her grandmother, 23-year-old British graduate Alice Hare fills her days wandering the city streets and posting pictures online. “As I didn’t have any followers at this point, taking pictures was really only for my benefit,” she explains. “But I noticed that there was a difference between just taking them and posting them so that they were public. The first made me feel OK. The second made me feel good.”

Olivia Sudjic’s impressive debut novel Sympathy is a knotty – sometimes confusing, but always smart – dissection of intimacy and interaction in the digital age. “I felt like I had joined up with something bigger than myself,” says Alice as she begins to gain followers. “I sensed that whatever I was doing was in some way happening on a grander scale.” 

However, as the novel – a “love story that is mostly made up, from memories that are mostly false, between people who were mainly not there” – so chillingly illustrates, what social media actually offers is more often the illusion of connection. 

Fittingly, the narrative is held together by a dreamlike disjointedness. Sudjic resists straightforward chronology, the book opening towards the end of the action before backtracking to the beginning, jumping between events as it suits Alice’s, if not unreliable, definitely untrustworthy and obstinately impenetrable memory. Sometimes it’s a bit of a job keeping track of what’s going on, but there’s method here, the reading experience rendered akin to that of losing oneself online. As Alice herself says of her entanglements, “I just have to keep pressing on each link to get to the next; I don’t have to know where it’s going.”

Her journey down the rabbit hole is no less labyrinthine than that of her literary namesake. Plus, such structural elaboration can be forgiven because the plot itself has a clear propellant: Alice’s search for her origins. Feeling unmoored, she’s returned to the city of her birth in search of information pertaining to her biological parents, or her adopted father, who disappeared from her and her mother’s life years before while in Japan. Instead, she finds Mizuko Himuru, a Japanese-born writer 10 years her senior who teaches at Columbia, and whose life, Alice believes, parallels her own. Obsessed with Mizuko, and, “having dissected the pictorial equivalent of her DNA in advance”, Alice – a sort of Tom Ripley with a Smartphone – inveigles her way into the older woman’s life. 

Despite these nods to the genre, Sympathy isn’t a mystery thriller in the traditional sense. Rather it’s a gripping odyssey into one woman’s online-addled inner life that shrewdly ties together the age-old hubris of youth with a particular sort of new digital naïveté. “How did adults of a certain age not understand how the internet worked?” Alice wonders on more than one occasion. “There’s no end to things, no way out ... that nothing stays private and nothing goes away.” In the end though, it’s actually Alice who turns out to be the most unguarded of all. 

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic is published by ONE/Pushkin Press, £14.99