Crime thriller meets poignant portrayal of Australian immigrant life in this topical debut Black Rock White City by AS Patrić
Australian author AS Patrić’s debut novel tells the story of two migrants from the former Yugoslavia trying to rebuild their lives in late 1990s Australia. Black Rock is a suburb of Melbourne with a large immigrant population, and “white city” – the literal English translation of “Belgrade” – connotes renewal and regeneration, the blank slate of a fresh start. His protagonists, Jovan and Suzana, lost everything in the Balkan conflict: their two young children, their livelihoods and much of their will to live. Suzana was raped and Jovan tortured. In Australia they take jobs that are beneath their level of education: she works as a carer; he, formerly a university lecturer, is now a hospital janitor. Jovan used to be a prolific poet and Suzana wrote fiction, but neither has done much writing since they migrated.
Patrić – who was born in Serbia and moved to Australia as a child – paints a convincing snapshot of émigré life, rendering its banal humiliations with pointed weariness. Aussies speak to Jovan “as though his slow, thick words are a result of brain damage”, and he endures constant passive aggressive banter from a racist colleague. Even the dentist he is sleeping with (with Suzana’s blessing) treats him dismissively: “He’s more a part of the now of her imagination than he is a man with his own history and his own future.” Suzana’s best friend in Australia is a fellow migrant, Jelka, with whom she has very little in common aside from a shared language. Then there is the matter of adjusting to a different set of cultural expectations regarding gender relations: Suzana can’t help feeling contemptuous of her employer for his passive and diffident manner, which would be deemed weak and unmanly by the standards of her native country.
This is all perceptively observed, but it hangs somewhat awkwardly on a plot line that would not look out of place in a television cop show. A mysterious vandal writes menacing graffiti on the walls of the hospital where Jovan works. He goes on to mutilate a corpse, carving the word “Inspiration” into the body of a recently deceased patient, and the threat level escalates from there. Jovan befriends a journalist, who as luck would have it is writing a book on graffiti. The journalist underwhelmingly remarks that the daubs are “an interesting mixture of desperation and philosophy” and the two men indulge in lots of lurid hypothesising about the perpetrator’s possible motives. The scary messages are embarrassingly cliched, referencing morbidity and disease with all the subtlety of a gothmetal lyric sheet; the graffitist’s signature insignia is an image of something called a “Trojan flea” – a screamingly obvious metaphor for an inside job.
The theme that connects these two seemingly discrete narratives – the insightful tableau of the immigrant experience and the hammy crime thriller – is the idea of writing as release. Patrić invites us to consider that the impulse that drives alienated youths to scrawl tags on train stations is not a million miles from the urge to write fiction or poetry: in both cases it is a question of wanting to leave a mark, to register your existence in the world. Suzana, who has attempted suicide, edges towards some kind of healing as she begins writing a historical novel: “When ink is put to the page she is history and her children will speak again.” It hangs together, but only just.
Patrić’s prose is energetic and engag- ing, but a little lacking in finesse. The trick of jettisoning pronouns in alternate sentences to create a sense of briskness (“She drives into Frankston and down Reservoir Road. Parks in her driveway …”) grows wearisome when deployed to excess: there is only so much filmic urgency a reader can take. The novel’s over-reliance on existentially weighty words such as “purgatory” and “oblivion” feels similarly heavyhanded, and there are occasional lapses into verbosity, such as when Suzana, reminiscing about a charismatic professor from her student days, recalls “the halo of an explosion from his fusionpowered mind”.
Black Rock White City has enjoyed critical acclaim in Australia, winning the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 2016. That award specifically celebrates fiction that depicts “Australian life in any of its phases”, and no doubt it was the book’s sympathetic and topical portrayal of marginalised communities that endeared it to the judges: Patrić’s trenchant humanism forms a sombre rejoinder to the rising tide of nativism across the English-speaking world. Black Rock White City is aesthetically flawed, but its sensitive exploration of the innate human need to put down roots is admirably ambitious and timely.
Patrić’s humanism forms a sombre rejoinder to the rising tide of nativism across the anglophone world
256pp, Melville House, £16.99
To order Black Rock White City go to www.mhpbooks.com.