Powerful and Devastating: Black Rock White City

Black Rock White CityBlack Rock White City by A. S. Patric

I had this novel earmarked to begin November’s Aus Reading Month but started it early after hearing that the author is going to be interviewed on 774 ABC Melbourne next Thursday (29 October). Hope I can catch the interview online!

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. 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.

First Impressions: The story leaped straight into the graffiti and Jovan’s job at the hospital. It jumped around a little but was definitely worth sticking with.

Highlights: There were a lot of discussions about psychology and human motivations in the first half of the novel and it made me wonder if the author was borrowing from the tradition of Yugoslav literature. For some reason I just assume that traditional Yugoslav literature contains much more profound thought than Australian/English novels! If he did borrow, then Patric has created a perfect balance between the two literatures which I think is the point of the novel. The graffiti at the hospital is also rather surreal and feels like an existential borrowing from European literature. I have since learnt Patric is influenced by Kafka, so there you go.

I felt a little embarrassed when reading this novel as I had to check I knew which country both Sarajevo and Belgrade belong to (luckily I was correct!). This made me realise that perhaps the Bosnian/Serbian conflict has become a forgotten war – surely this doesn’t happen in Europe any more? People in Europe no longer suffer like this? I really liked the way Patric didn’t sensationalise the characters’ suffering to the point of turning it into a misery memoir. If anything, the horrors experienced by Jovan and Suzana were understated at best. I found the cause of  both Jorvan’s torture and the death of the two children both surprising – not the usual war horrors you would imagine.

Overall I found a lot of similarities with the refugee experience in Joan London’s The Golden Age which was about a WW2 Hungarian migrant family. The interpretation of the new language. How Australia and Australians could ever stand up to and appreciated the established culture in Europe. Forging weak bonds with other migrants just because they hold something in common. When does this foreign landscape ever start to feel like home? I guess some things will never change.

If I was an editor: David Dickens. A writer who befriends Jovan. Sure, he has lots of long rants about human psychology I often lost track of but he is an entertaining character with his Indian inspired clothes bought from incense shops that even Gipsies wouldn’t wear. More David Dickens please!

Overall: How can people who have suffered so much still see hope in their (distant) futures? I guess that is the human spirit prevailing but I found the whole story devastating. How could you go on?

Black Rock White City: 5 Stars