Loss, loneliness and dislocation are prevalent throughout Melbourne writer A S Patric’s debut novel.
As refugees from the Balkan wars, Jovan Brakocevic and his wife Suzanna are at a loss in their new Melbourne home. A former university lecturer and published poet in Sarajevo, Jovan is a cleaner at a local hospital; Suzanna cleans private homes. Their loss of a former life is palpable, the deaths of their two young children haunting their every move. Both are struggling to adapt – with their surroundings and with each other. A silence pervades.
Patric mixes his chronologies, slowly revealing the horrors of a country torn apart by religious and social wars, centuries in the making. Juxtaposed is the new everyday, where Jovan needs to concern himself with new brake pads or Suzanna leaving the lights on in their rented home. The couple are now in a country where a local Australian co-worker “… thinks he hates a boss or a politician or someone at his local pub,” Jovan observes, “but he hasn’t seen hate turn to fire, free-floating and exploding throughout a city, and then materialising again into a blistered red monster more real than any creature children imagine in night-time terrors.”
Black Rock White City is the story of trauma and the extent people can recover from tragedy and what happens to them in the process. It is told against the backdrop of an anonymous graffiti artist (labelled Dr Graffitio) vandalising the hospital and specialised equipment. It is this storyline that initially dominates, but slowly its prevalence becomes secondary. The real horrors are Balkan-related.
It’s bleak, challenging and deeply impressive. Yet I did not like Black Rock White City. Suzanna is the more interesting of the two central characters, but she only comes into any significant focus at the halfway stage. The novel’s slow beginnings centred on Dr Graffitio and Jovan’s sexual tryst with a dentist. The stark relationship between Jovan and Suzanna is beautifully realised: life in Sarajevo and Belgrade (White City) stunningly portrayed in its inhumanity and incomprehension. Yet the vandalism subplot gets in the way of this exploration, with its denouement a seemingly clumsy and abrupt afterthought.
Black Rock White City was presented with the 2016 Miles Franklin Award.