Crime thriller meets poignant por­trayal of Aus­tralian im­mi­grant life in this top­i­cal de­but Black Rock White City by AS Pa­trić

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Houman Barekat

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

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