I’m off to Melbourne to catch up with My-Friend-Jarrod next month and what better way to ready myself than to indulge in new Melbourne fiction. And my goodness. What fiction this is. Five, oh five, oh five glorious and shining stars, Mr. Poetic-Patric.
He can’t speak to any of it because it isn’t about words anymore. It’s about another existence. Neither of them is sure about the present but this is some kind of afterlife (17).
On the surface the book is about Serbian immigrants, Jovan and Suzana and their life in Melbourne. In Serbia he was a Professor of Literature. In Melbourne he cleans the evil scrawl of Dr. Graffito off hospital walls. Beneath the story Patric investigates the relationship between a husband and wife who have experienced unfathomable trauma through their children’s death. He investigates infidelity and whether, sometimes, it might be okay. All of this is couched beneath an arc that questions our xenophobia. In an interview in Good Reading (April 2015) Patric says “Literature can return us to our humanity.” Many Australians (and New Zealanders) who encounter Serbian (or other) refugees or immigrants may not be able to detect or understand the suffering behind smiling eyes. Black Rock White City humanizes the Serbian War and allows us to understand the life-altering terror and displacement it forced on many.
. . . the old world can be packed into a box, and left to gather dust, and be rarely seen. More and more rarely as the years pass. The two worlds drift further and further apart. Of course, the box doesn’t disappear. It will always be exactly where it always was—in the centre of their lives. It is made of the thinnest sheets of porous material, the most fragile membrane, leaking without warning at any point (136-137).
As I writer I am interested in the points of view (several) and the section of story Patric has chosen to tell. He could have written a rip-roaring present-action book encompassing the Serbian war and the unbearable deaths of Ana and Dejan. But he didn’t. He chose to begin in media res, in Jovan and Suzana’s make-do Melbourne life. This is not a story about the Serbian war. This is a story about real life in the Melbourne suburbs.
The character of Suzana is pure genius. She has more layers than an onion. Patric uses a soft touch, gradually revealing the woman she is now, the woman she was in Serbia and the (surprising) woman she was before Jovan. Patric renders her ‘love’ (you’ll see what I mean) for Jovan using a tender starkness that reflects a lamp back to each of us and asks: who were you before now? Is that person still inside you? Can you ever change, completely? There was only one place in the book I was shunted out of the story—Jovan gets a bit preachy when talking with Suzana about Graffito on pages 240-241; minor criticism that doesn’t alter my five-star opinion.
Written across the chalkboard-black streets is the mathematics of chaos. Everyone going off in a million directions, scrawling their intentions in Morse code flashes and dashes, behind glass hissing at each other in the lost languages of silence, sometimes colliding and crashing into each other, mostly passing untouched across the unalterable long black mark of destiny road through an anonymous fate (68—italics Patric’s own)
Patric’s imagery is stunningly memorable: Suzana’s Janissary dying the forest; the television discarded on the lawn; Ms. Richards waiting for the train; Suzana in the swimming pool. Oh, bliss. These I will keep.
For the briefest of moments she knows what it is to come apart in millions of different directions, none of them a release or relief (54).
As for the ending—how can anyone decry the ending? It is magnificent. I want to type it out in full and give you a slice of my chest so you can see how my breath gasped at its beauty. But that wouldn’t be good manners. You’ll have to read it yourself.
PS: ‘White City’ is the literal translation of Belgrade (19) and ‘Black Rock’ is a seaside suburb of Melbourne.
You can buy the book here:
New Zealand readers: I can’t seem to find it at the independents, but have put a request in to Unity Books and Dear Reader (Grey Lynn, Auckland) to stock it.
This review also appears on Goodreads.com.