First published in 2017, Sympathy is the debut novel from Olivia Sudjic, which explores the relationship between real and fictional lives. This is a concept which intrigued me, and with the ever growing prominence of social media and the access it allows into other peoples’ lives, I was interested to see how this would have an impact on its characters.
In this novel we meet Alice Hare, a young woman in her early twenties who arrives in New York City to find a place she can call home. We learn that life for Alice hasn’t always been easy, with her desire to piece together her story, having been adopted, and corresponding with her ailing grandmother. But in New York Alice finds herself captivated by Mizuko Himuro, a Japanese writer who she follows online. This begins something of an obsession for Alice, as she becomes fixated by Mizuko’s life, and eager to find out more about her, and to form a relationship with her. And we discover that there are aspects of Mizuko’s life which seem to mirror Alice’s own, which only deepens the connection that she feels between them, the feeling that these two strangers are bound together through their pasts and their present, as their lives become intertwined.
I have Sympathy referred to as the first ‘Instagram novel’ and it is certainly a story which explores the modern relationship we have with social media and the way in which we can become addicted to the lives we come across online, and the lives we aspire to. This is shown through the knowledge that Alice picks up about Mizuko’s life, the way she picks up on where she likes to go and what she enjoys which highlights the way in which we give up details of ourselves so freely. Along the way we also observe other elements of our increasing online presence including the murky world of online dating. One thing I found interesting was the idea that there are elements of Alice’s life and origins that remain unclear whilst she finds out more about someone else’s life and history. In terms of the writing style this was an intelligently written and thought provoking read with an unusual structure. There were points in the novel where I felt a little lost, due to the fact that the timeline seems to move back and forth, as we uncover different layers of the story piece by piece rather than moving forward. I also found this to be something of a slow burner, and was perhaps a little longer than it needed to be for my preference. That said there are plenty of positives to take from this novel, a multi-layered story of truth and lies, bonds and blood ties which is relevant to the world we live in today, and it kept me intrigued till the end.
Whilst I found this book a little harder to get through than anticipated I thought it was a promising debut from a talented young writer. It is a story of a woman’s life, loves and obsessions, as we see her journey of discovery of herself, and the object of her fascination. And it is a story which explores technology, and the dependence we have on it in modern day life, which looks at the way we use social media, and the way it can use us in return.