Cycling to Asylum by Su J. Sokol

 Cycling to Asylum

   by Su J. Sokol

   Deux Voiliers Publishing

   Montreal 2014

   ISBN 978-1928049036

Reviewed by Aldous Smith

Laek, the first character we meet in Cycling to Asylum, is a mystery; a Brooklyn school teacher and activist with secrets; a pacifist with a violent past; and a fugitive from the quasi-fascistic police-state where bureaucracy and technology mine data on almost everything you are and do.

Laek and his family only want ordinary, familial love, kindness, and liberty in their personal lives. The harrowing flaw in this scenario is that, in Sokol’s futuristic New York, the police state values its power far more than it does its citizens. Sokol paints a world in which people are little more than statistics. Unnervingly, they could be any of us, a few degrees removed, in an uber-controlled society that, in this post-911 world, might not be too far off.

The first crisis explodes without warning: Laek is brutalized by a lone police officer. Then the apparently safe life Laek and his partner Janie have managed to construct starts to unravel. Events conspire against them; the brutal police officer reappears, Laek is hospitalized and Janie looks like the next potential victim. Emotionally torn, they plot their escape from New York, taking with them their daughter Siri, twelve, and their son Simon, nine. Their intended asylum, Québec, Canada, and Montréal, now famous as an international sanctuary city.

Sokol’s novel is markedly different to most science-fiction. Certainly, in this future world, technology is omnipresent; but life—personified in this family—is still vital and central; the humans have not morphed into the one-dimensional caricatures we find in so many futuristic novels. Sokol excels at narrating real-life relationships, capturing natural nuance, letting her characters live life in the small, hungry ways that we all do.

It is through these relationships that Sokol shows us what cherishing human life means, when the larger drama is apparently absent. She does intimacy really well. There’s enough love and natural realism in the story to counterbalance the threat and danger. But like any good storyteller, Sokol never lets the danger dissipate altogether. Even as you read through the minutiae of the characters’ mundane lives, their preparation for escape, their seemingly easy crossing of the U.S./Canada border, you know that more trouble is coming, that almost unarticulated questions have definitely not been answered, skeletons not disposed of.

The result, for the reader, is a constant feeling of tension, which parallels the unsettled state of Laek, Janie and the children. The technique is subtle, but palpable; what Janie, Siri and Simon don’t know about Laek, we don’t know either. And the answers to the novel’s troubling questions, when they come, hit viscerally, one after another, in a natural, uncontrived unfolding. It is only when Laek is forced to confront his demons, in front of an immigration tribunal, no less, that we, companions to his family, begin to discover the answers to the mystery that is Laek’s past life of trauma and outlaw survival.

Near the middle of the tale, we come across what might be the central thematic question of the novel.  Laek is speaking, alone in the Montreal winter: “At the centre of the bridge, I stop. It’s nothing like the solid, familiar Brooklyn Bridge. This bridge is vast, cold. I shiver, wrapping my arms around my chest. Why did I ever think I could do good in this world? That anyone could? The only way to have impact is to do evil.”

Sokol’s subliminal response to this question reasserts itself throughout the novel: love’s tenderness and humour might just counteract the world’s evils, day by day. And yet, there is a final twist, a penultimate moment of evil to this tale that, once again, surprises the reader, and yet, is entirely human. To say more than this would be to play the spoiler: Danger, and potentially deep loss, threaten to the very end.

Cycling to Asylum portrays a family of real people, vulnerable and kind people, imperfect people. Their story flows so naturally that I didn’t realize at first that it was written in the present tense, something I usually find superficial, even stylistically contrived. Thanks to Sokol’s mastery, I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, I found it very fitting. A poignant adventure like this belongs in the absolute present.  That the characters stay with you long afterwards testifies to the depth of Sokol’s vision and authentic voice.  This is a memorable novel by a new Canadian writer.