It’s rare to find a novel that explores the narrative potential of the digital age, and even rarer to find one that does it as compassionately — and disturbingly — as Olivia Sudjic’s debut.
Alice Hare is a 23-year-old philosophy graduate who leaves England for New York, hoping to discover who she is and where she came from. Running a DNA test for a family friend, she discovers Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer whose life, she feels, has parallels with her own. Through deception, contrived meetings and some heavy Instagram stalking, Alice worms her way into Mizuko’s life, beginning a destructive pseudo-relationship that does lasting damage to them both.
‘A white wall had descended, blank except for a padlock symbol.’
Sympathy begins with a pending ‘follow’ request on Instagram, introducing one of the many forms of limbo in which Alice is trapped. An unaccepted ‘follow’ request is neither yes nor no; friends nor strangers; together nor apart. One thing Sympathy excels at is exploring the liminal boundaries between these states, and the false hope of transcendence that digital media provides.
It’s this possibility of certainty — of the balance tipping one way or the other— that drives Alice throughout the novel. Excluded offline, she goes online for answers. Locked out online, she cannot leave things alone, because the Internet is full of back doors. She sets up Google Alerts for Mizuko’s name. She scours the Instagram profiles of Mizuko’s friends, waiting for her to pop up in their photos. She doesn’t, but there’s always the possibility that she might — and that’s enough to keep Alice hooked.
In some ways, the structure manoeuvres the reader into a similar position. The novel begins at the end before going back to the beginning, with the middle vaguely jumbled in between. We are given access to different parts of Alice’s life, but the parts aren’t always ordered — it’s not unlike the way we sift through information online. This works well for the first two thirds of the book, but does mean that the climax feels like it’s happened too early. The aftermath isn’t so interesting, and the most dynamic characters are absent as we retreat into Alice’s head.
Alice’s search for identity consists mainly of imposing meaning on things that have none, and forcing things into being so she can insist they were meant to be. The author occasionally mirrors these tendencies with some extremely convenient coincidences that are never fully explained. Alice meets a man in Japan in her gap year; he turns up later at her university in England; he is later, somehow, dating Mizuko when Alice arrives in New York. And the café they frequent can be seen out the window from her aunt’s nursing home. There are also Lewis Carroll references shoehorned in throughout — a shame, as the novel is thematically strong on its own, and doesn’t need to rely on them for support.
That aside, Sympathy provides incredible insight into the way the Internet shapes our relationships with each other and ourselves. Intimacy is an illusion, and Alice has a disturbing knack for using the opinions people voice online to forge bonds that wouldn’t otherwise exist. The one organic relationship she forms in the novel is with Dwight, an insufferable “Innovation Consultant, App Developer and Apiarist” who is in constant pursuit of novelty. While she feels very little for him, he opens doors: she begins accumulating likes and follows on Instagram — validation that she exists, and has an identity.
‘It was almost more exciting that way, to watch us kiss, than the kiss itself had been.’
Quite understandably, the relationship with Dwight doesn’t satisfy her. Despite her desperation to be part of something bigger — a lineage, a social group — Alice seems more comfortable on the outside looking in. She wants so desperately to get close to Mizuko, although it seems that being close will never be enough. She wants to absorb, or be absorbed by, Mizuko. They are connected on a cosmic level, she tells herself. What initially draws Alice to Mizuko seems a little weak, but the toxic relationship that follows is believable enough that this doesn’t seem to matter in the end.
‘I’d searched her name enough times by that point so that anything to do with her would seek me out without by soliciting it.’
Despite seeming to have acquired some degree of self-awareness by the end, Alice is unable to escape her old patterns. This isn’t a story of internet addiction, but of obsession, facilitated by social media. And even when it’s over, it’s not — because, as Alice says, ‘nothing stays private and nothing goes away.’