A novel about the damages of war, the limits of choice, and the hope of love.
One of my dozen Top Aussie Reads of 2016.
Black Rock White City Synopsis
During a hot Melbourne summer Jovan’s cleaning work at a bayside hospital is disrupted by acts of graffiti and violence becoming increasingly malevolent. For Jovan the mysterious words that must be cleaned away dislodge the poetry of the past. He and his wife Suzana were forced to flee Sarajevo and the death of their children.
Intensely human, yet majestic in its moral vision, Black Rock White City is an essential story of Australia’s suburbs now, of displacement and immediate threat, and the unexpected responses of two refugees as they try to reclaim their dreams. It is a breathtaking roar of energy that explores the immigrant experience with ferocity, beauty and humour.
I’m inexcusably late to the party when it comes to this novel. An admirer of Patric’s capacity to deliver unflinchingly honest and moving prose since reading his short story collection Las Vegas for Vegans and novella Bruno Kramzer, I just knew that his first long-form creation would be worth setting aside time for. Its recent shortlisting for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award gave me that nudge over the precipice I needed.
UPDATE: Alec Patric, and his debut went on to win the 2016 Miles Franklin Award (announced 26 August 2016).
Read in a single day, Black Rock White City exceeded my high expectations.
There was a startling white winter in your blood, and there was all our springs and autumns and children in long laughing summers that will never end, though now, when we close our eyes, we see a blank expanse and it gets harder to hear through the clatter, the din of our disused, unoiled, derelict hearts.
Stunning in its complexity and powerful use of symbolism, in Black Rock White City Patric hones in on resilience and beauty amidst bleakness. His exploration of the nuance of language and its usage, in celebration of beauty and capacity to both connect and marginalise is haunting.
She wants to take a knife and sword to those that uphold this medieval language as supreme in the world today, then lets the notion go, and spells her words as best she can.
Through Jovan and Suzana’s immigrant lens, the mirage of a classless and inclusive society is shattered. From the way Jovan’s hospital colleagues equate lack of fluency in the English language with lack of intellect to mistaking his forbearance for indifference.
Indeed it is in their innermost thoughts at these moments of frustration that Patric’s dark humour bubbles to the surface. That Jovan’s hospital colleagues prioritise the graffiti’s removal from sight over understanding its meaning and the very real threat it represents is symbolic of the fleeting nature of civic concern (often politically prompted) against a background of societal apathy. In this way, Patric poses many important questions too often left unanswered…
While I recall the horror of the TV footage during my teens, the Bosnian War is one I must admit to understanding only at a high level up to this point. That in itself was a disturbing realisation given the incalculable impact I’m aware it has had on so many of my fellow Australians.
Calling that explosion of murder War makes it seem familiar. Elementary as much as elemental. When it rises from the ground, reeking of sulphur, war is hard to disguise as anything other than the Devil himself. Turning mailmen, barbers, greengrocers, electricians and taxi drivers into dismembering demons. Burning up entire generations of men as if their souls were made of hay.
But the focus of Black Rock White City is not the war itself, rather the lasting effect it’s had on Jovan and Suzana’s lives now being led a world away in Melbourne. That inspite of so much having been taken from them, they still have the capacity for compassion and willingness to help others in need. But more generally it’s about the uniqueness of everyones grieving process — whether it be our response to the loss of loved ones, loss of innocence, loss of hope, loss of passion.
In addition to the remarkable depths of characterisation Patric achieves through his leads’ shared language of literature and poetry, this novel is populated with wonderfully idiosyncratic secondary characters. While perhaps not touched by war, each has their own life struggles, most hidden beneath facades offered up by the urban environment — from the trappings of wealth, makeup, professional and gender roles or ethnic minority associations. All are issues worthy of serious discussion in their own right.
What particularly struck me about this book is that it defies typical genre categorisation, and that perhaps this is the mark of a truly great novel…
… with the intensity and suspense of a psychological thriller, the lyricism and universality of great literature, and the grittiness and brutality of a crime novel. This is not so much about your typical romance, but a deeper love (a connection) that can sustain people in their darkest moments.
With a sense of immediacy and impact like a punch to the stomach and what the 2016 Miles Franklin judges have described as ‘unapologetic intimacy’, A S Patric’s Black Rock White City is a deeply affecting novel that I cannot recommend more highly. One of my best books of 2016.
Patric’s next novel, Atlantic Black, is scheduled for publication by Transit Lounge in
late 2016 mid 2017.
- Read our latest interview – Alec Patrić joined us to discuss this title’s path to publication, the Miles Franklin Award shortlisting, what he is currently working on and more…
- Transit Lounge has sold North American and UK rights to Melville House
BOOK RATING: The Story 5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5
Genre: Literature, Drama, Thriller, Mystery, History, Crime
This review counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2016
About the Author, A S Patric
A.S. Patrić is the award winning author of Las Vegas for Vegans, published in 2012 by Transit Lounge. Las Vegas for Vegans was shortlisted for the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards’ Steele Rudd Prize. He is also the author of Bruno Kramzer and The Rattler & other stories. Alec lives in bayside Melbourne and is a St Kilda bookseller.
- Visit Alec’s website or connect with him on Twitter (@)
- Read our 2012 interview with Alec Patric discussing his Las Vegas for Vegans story collection.
- Interview with ABC’s Lateline: ‘A S Patric on what it’s like to win the Miles Franklin’