Cycling to Asylum by Su J. Sokol
Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Life in New York City not too many years from now is anything but peaceful. The police brutally repress any type of social protest and keep the populace under constant surveillance. Apartments are aggressively searched for illegal immigrants and other “undesirables” at any time of day or night. Just to be suspected of an offense means prison and torture.
Laek Wolfe’s family lives in Brooklyn and loves to go bike riding together. They even have a special bedtime story about it. And though technology has advanced in many little ways—“holos” have replaced signs and billboards, and everyone has a “screen” instead of a cell phone—the kids still play baseball and need help with their homework.
But Laek has a secret: as a homeless youth he was a member of a radical group and was captured and tortured by the authorities. He still experiences nightmares and blackouts from this. Released as a minor, he changed his identity and now works as a teacher. But when he goes to the aid of his students at a demonstration, he attracts the police’s attention. Fearing what exposure of his past life will do to him and his family, Laek decides they should all go on a biking vacation. So, they travel to northern Vermont, unload their bicycles and ride across the Canadian border to seek asylum in Montreal, an “international sanctuary city.”
Told in four voices—those of Laek, his wife Janie, their daughter Siri and son Simon—this story is layered rather than simply linear. Each character experiences what they all go through differently. So while moving to Montreal is liberating for Laek, it is devastating for Siri, who has to leave everything she values behind. Janie is supportive but bewildered, and Simon thinks it’s cool.
This may be Sokol’s first novel, but it is clear she is an able writer. She has a gift for dialogue, from teenage angst to lawyer’s considered advice. She also retains a light touch. In particular she does not belabour the horrors Laek experiences, but she conveys them with taut immediacy. They are mentioned as given facts but are resented as a nightmare or flashback occurring in Laek’s present. This keeps the focus on Laek’s present condition. And though there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of Laek, this is realistic. The author does not step out of the narration of each character to give them knowledge they don’t have. The soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old Siri comes across as the most compellingly real character in the book. While her family is going through the trials of creating a new life, she is experiencing her first love, physical development and the emotional turbulence that comes with being a teen.
“Cycling to Asylum” is not without some stumbles—it is a first novel, after all—but its engaging themes and well-controlled prose make this a worthwhile read. Sokol challenges the reader with Laek and Janie. He is bisexual, a former street kid who sold his body for food and lodging. Janie, four years older, was the one who got him off the streets, and they are dedicated to each other. But there is also Philip, whose relationship with Laek is equally intense and intimate. The mutual love and tolerance among these three is endearing, as Janie and Philip each tries to repair Laek’s damaged soul. Janie in particular is rather saint-like, and one has to wonder how any of the people in this triangle are so immune from the pull of possessiveness or jealousy. Yet Sokol does handle these complex relationships with the right touch, so that they come across as sweet, sincere, and genuinely caring.
And this fits. In addition to the layers of perception the reader receives through the characters, the author is making a point about the layers of personal freedom a person is entitled to. And though political freedom is at the forefront of this book, Sokol is also saying that, in addition to the right to be free from abuse and persecution, we have the right to be free to be ourselves and to love whomsoever we truly love. Children should be free to be children. And we must all be free from being judged.
The stark contrast between New York and Montreal may come across to some readers as a bit vindictive, a Parthian shot by Sokol who herself left the Big Apple for Montreal ten years ago. Perhaps. But while New York’s infestation by the forces of violence and corruption may be painted a shade too darkly, the Montreal the Wolfe family arrives in is entirely recognizable. Any American (including this reviewer) coming north experiences what the Wolfes do. Sokol writes viscerally of the tastes, sounds, and scents of Montreal in all seasons. Laek and his family marvel at kids playing hockey safely in the street; they savour the food, the language, the very unfamiliar North American history. But most of all, they encounter a strange feeling: that of having no fear. It is a foreign sensation to an American. People in Montreal are not afraid of each other or their surroundings the way Americans are—and this surely is something the author wishes the reader to accept and take to heart.
Finally, for many people, this dystopian novel of a police-state America will take them to the future. For this reviewer, however, it echoes through the past. It is a direct line to the 1960s and ’70s when the police were “pigs” and protests filled the news. The US was being torn apart by civil unrest over an indefensible war and the hypocrisy of a nation, built on declarations of freedom, that denied freedom to so many of its own citizens. The police then were caught in the middle, unprepared for what society had become and rigid in their panicked response. And Canada for many then was something of a utopian dream, the refuge of Vietnam-era draft resisters just as it had been the last stop on the Underground Railroad for US slaves before the Civil War.
2014 has seen some of this surface again, in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities, where police are so fearful, and react to the slightest incident with disproportionate violence—and innocents are wounded and killed. In this way, “Cycling to Asylum” evokes both our damaged present and the aspirations of all of us desiring to be free.
Cycling to Asylum is published by Deux Voiliers Publishing.