Review: Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic
review by Emma Watson
Like her ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ twin, who climbs through a mirror into a topsy-turvy world of illogical fantasy, Olivia Sudjic’s 23 year old Alice Hare is sucked into a social media vortex of compulsive scrolling, where her digital presence comes to feel more real to her than reality. Falling down an Instagram rabbit hole, Alice’s life becomes an entwined knot of reality and fantasy, with the pervasive pull of social media co-existing alongside tangible reality at ‘the bottom of that screen like a ticker’.
Dubbed the ‘First Great Instagram Novel’ by The New Republic, the novel opens with an elegant fusing of social media jargon and an almost Byronic yearning for an Instagram follow request to be accepted by the object of Alice’s obsession. A millennial herself, Sudjic deftly unpicks our co-dependent relationship with technology by suggesting it splits us in two. She asks, to what extent can our online identities be separated from real life, and is that even possible? Where does a digital obsession end and real life stalking start?
Despite a palpable focus on the role of social media and digital technology in our lives and relationships, Sympathy does not read like science fiction. Rather, much like the writer Brian Aldiss who compared science fiction to ‘cultural wallpaper’, Sympathy chronicles what is already inherent to modern society and the human condition. Sudjic’s writing is nuanced and delicate, focusing more on the innate human desire for self-validation and gratification that is amplified and indulged by social media than on any inherent dangers prevalent in social media itself.
Moreover, Sympathy is a must-read for anyone in that quarter-life crisis slump. After a relatable and prolonged period of languishing in her childhood bedroom, Alice arrives in New York to ‘find herself’. With little to no plan in mind for her time in the US, Alice quickly becomes infatuated with the effortlessly cool Japanese writer, Mizuko Himura and begins to follow her online.
Both have difficult relationships with their mothers, absent fathers and problematic romantic relationships. As a result of these superficial similarities, Alice comes to idolise and almost venerate Mizuko, whose life she believes mirrors her own. If sympathy is understood as the act of sharing the feelings of others, Alice undoubtedly sympathises with Mizuko, believing herself beset with the same emotional difficulties as her idol. Through the unflinching lens of Alice’s obsession, Sudjic presents Mizuko as an almost ethereal, perfect presence. By elevating Mizuko to almost inhuman heights, ‘Sympathy’ expertly exposes the gaps in Alice’s perceived selfhood that she attempts to fill through an insatiable hunger for all-things-Mizuko.
Whilst the human condition is arguably the lifeblood of the novel, it is New York that Sudjic told Read it Forward was ‘like a strangler fig that just took over the story and eventually became the book itself’. Much like Alice’s own perceived selfhood, Sudjic presents New York as a city split in two. There is the impenetrable ‘outside’ with its endless pavements and towering skyscrapers, and there is the suffocating ‘inside’ with its myriad of apartments and lofts. Through this disparate and overwhelming sense of grandness, Sudjic succeeds in presenting the Big Apple as claustrophobic. For all of Alice’s wanderings, the novel mostly feels as though you are stuck within four walls.
"Sympathy is a tale of duality, and at its heart is a protagonist and narrator split in two."
As the Guardian puts it, Alice is a sort of twenty-first century ‘flâneuse’. Just as the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century flâneur is associated with idle time-wasting, Alice aimlessly walks the streets of New York in a state of ennui and purposelessness. To be a flâneuse, in any century, is to live a privileged life. Not just anyone can hop on a flight to New York to stay with an estranged relative, ostensibly rent-free, for months on end with zero expectation or requirement to find full-time employment.
Yet, it is Alice’s obsessive social media posting that ensures her coronation as the ultimate flâneuse. Her days promenading the New York sidewalks are bookended by a myriad of inane photos that she uploads as if she were dropping confetti from a great height: carelessly and arbitrarily. Little to no thought or care is involved in these posts. Sudjic suggests that Alice uploads out of a subconscious desire and need for validation: ‘I sensed that whatever I was doing was in some way happening on a grander scale’. Alice’s photos are autotelic, serving no greater function than their own existence.
In this way, I struggled to sympathise with Alice – Sudjic presents a woman who is wonderfully naïve to her own fallacies and completely lacks any real self-awareness. Perhaps this is because she overcompensates in the online world? Is her real selfhood threatened by her digital identity? ‘Sympathy’ is an exceptional debut novel that is more inquisitive than explanatory. Despite its exploration of our engagement with contemporary technology, ‘Sympathy’ is a timeless tale of obsession and voyeurism that exposes the foibles of the human condition through the perfectly imperfect protagonist, Alice Hare.
Emma is London-based with a Masters in French literature and an unwavering love for hot chocolate.
Sign up to our monthly newsletter for information about upcoming events, exclusive interviews with industry artists, directors, writers, creatives and a run down of our latest reviews.