‘TAKE a seat and wait for your number to be called.” There is, in most of our lives, at least some small echo of what life as an asylum seeker must be like. Except when our number is finally called, we are just picking up a prescription, or seeing a doctor, or paying a parking permit, and not desperate to convince the person on the other side of the counter to believe us, as our life could be over if they don’t.

We know, too, or can at least easily imagine, the kind of offices where such encounters take place: plain, easily-wiped seats and floors, places of such overwhelming utilitarian dullness that asylum seekers’ stories of death threats, rape and murder sound implausibly out of place. The challenge facing Jason Donald, pictured, in his second novel is to accurately reflect those two realities – the visceral menace left behind in another country and the boredom and loneliness of living, often for years, in limbo over here.

There’s a further test too: unless our empathy with the asylum seekers can be credibly counterbalanced, the novel will dribble away into uninvolving polemic. So when Dalila Mwathi, his 20-year-old Kenyan student protagonist, is first asked, at Border Control in Heathrow, why she is visiting Britain, it helps the story that almost everything she says is a lie. Later, when she tries to tell the truth – that she is fleeing her gangster rapist uncle, that her family have been murdered in post-election violence – she will not be believed by the state’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy. But at Heathrow, officialdom falls for her lie that she’s just visiting her aunt for a three-week holiday. And she’s in.

After breaking free from a gang of people traffickers, Dalila finds herself alone and penniless on the streets of London. A charity pushes her towards the asylum screening unit in Croydon, which sends her to the one city in Britain that asylum seekers least want to go: the most racist, the coldest, the one where they’re told they’re most likely to get a knife in the ribs. Glasgow.

Jason Donald knows exactly what life is like for them there. These days, he runs a writers’ retreat overlooking Lake Geneva, but for the whole of the Noughties he taught English to classes consisting mostly of asylum seekers at Cardonald College and lived in Ibrox two blocks away from the building – the inappropriately named Festival Court – where their applications to stay in the UK were processed. After finishing Choke Chain, his well-received 2009 debut novel, he started working with a range of charities helping asylum seekers in the city. Dalila is particularly easy to identify with.

As a Kenyan, she isn’t marginalised by an inability to speak English; as a journalism student, she knows the importance of telling her story clearly, as well as how to use Facebook to ask her friends in Nairobi to bolster her case. Against that, she can’t produce a shred of evidence that she’s telling the truth about her rapist uncle, nor does she come from a country with a provable risk of persecution. We might know the truth about her, and why she wouldn’t be safe somewhere else in Kenya, but can the immigration authorities really be blamed for doubting her?

Or, come to that, the yob menacing Dalila in the lift up to her 17th floor flat, jealous of the fact that she gets a free TV, cooker and furniture and he doesn’t – hasn’t he got a point too?

The fact that all those questions are plausibly framed is what gives the novel its tension, from which there are only rare slips. Generally, however, it is compassionate, clear-eyed and engaging, and communicates the realities of an asylum-seeker’s life far better than anything else I have ever read. At various stages in the story, Dalila catches images on the TV news of migrants marching or sailing to Europe. Invariably, she either stops watching or switches off the set.

It’s easy to understand why.

Those numbers of strangers are so great that it’s hard to imagine them as individuals. If only we could, we might find it easier to understand the African concept of Ubuntu, as explained to Dalila by a Ugandan asylum seeker.

Basically, it means kindness, fellow-feeling, the realisation that we are all interdependent – all simplified into: “I can only be OK if you’re OK.” This might be an unfashionable philosophy in these unkind times, but Dalila makes you think it might well be worth trying sometime.

Dalila by Jason Donald is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99