A.S. Patrić won the Miles Franklin award with his fifth novel Black Rock White City in 2016. I gifted it to myself as a Christmas present (!) that same year, so why has it taken me so very long to persuade myself to read this novel? Not because of the jumble of books already lying beside my bed also waiting to be read. In truth it has sat there, buried like a land mine, buried like something waiting to be disinterred, because I may have been a little scared.
As someone who spent a considerable amount of time in Bosnia during the conflict in the 1990s, I suspected I might find ‘Black Rock White City’ confronting and I wasn’t wrong. It could have jarred disappointingly, but I was relieved to find that A.S. Patrić handles both the horror of the Bosnian War and the impact conflicts such as these have on humanity with stark prose: his brevity of words penetrate and resonate more deeply for it.
The story depicts the lives of two Serbian refugees, Jovan Brakočević and his wife Suzana. As is the case with so many refugees forced to flee their homes for countries such as Australia, they find their qualifications and work experience rendered worthless, even their closest work colleagues cannot be bothered to learn to say their names correctly, and their ability to communicate with those around them is frustratingly shackled. It is particularly pitiful when we learn that in his former life in Bosnia Jovan was a poet and both he and Suzana worked as teachers at Sarajevo University. Living now in Frankston, they are barely existing, eking out their days in a sort of shadowy ‘afterlife’ where they clean up other people’s detritus and ‘it isn’t about words any more’. To make matters worse, we learn that although they have survived the war, their own children have not. But Patrić doesn’t labour the point. It is what he does not say which stabs deepest. When describing how Jovan sets a child back on his feet after he has accidentally crashed into him chasing a cricket ball, Patrić simply writes:
”Dear heart’ he calls the child – words he hasn’t used since his own boy died.’
Add to the painful mix someone (Dr Graffito) at the hospital where Jovan works leaving malicious messages and threats, that soon escalate into acts of violence, and this story had me in its pincers.
My only minor reservation after reading Black Rock White City would be to say that in terms of the author’s hold on the reins of suspense, his grasp slackened towards the end of the book, leaving some questions still unanswered and finishing a little too abruptly for my taste. Having said that, he did end the story on a hopeful note for Jovan and Suzana’s future together, for which I was thankful.
Throughout the novel, Patrić deals with the brutality of the war in Bosnia and the humiliation of being a refugee set adrift in a foreign country, with a sensitive and deft touch, the sort of touch that raised hairs on the back of my neck. His prose was often masterful; his observations unnervingly on point. Was it an enjoyable read? Not really – for me personally, it was like extracting a splinter. Did it make me sit up and pay attention? Absolutely. Did it disappoint? Not at all.
Black Rock White City is disturbing and evocative, a powerful lens not only on Australia, but on humanity as a whole.