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Trauma and Hope in A.S. Patrić’s Black Rock White City

Julia Champtaloup By Julia Champtaloup Published on September 29, 2016
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The dreams and haunting memories that migrants carry with them to their new homes are the backbone of the story in A.S. Patrić’s Black Rock White City. Even the title of the book reflects the main themes of trauma and hope. “Black Rock is a suburb of Melbourne and the literal translation of Belgrade is white city. Within the narrative of the novel itself, the black rock is trauma and the disaster of war, the white city is hope and a brighter future,” explained the Melbourne author and bookseller, who last August won Australia’s top prize for fiction for a debut novel, the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

In Black Rock White City, Jovan and Suzana, a former poet and academic, live a quiet life, making their way back and forth from their Melbourne suburban home to their menial jobs in a dodgy van that is always on the verge of breaking down. It is the 1990s, and they are still grappling with the scars of war after fleeing Bosnia, leaving behind their two dead children. They cling to the hope of reclaiming their lives, in particular Suzana, who has visions of recreating her lost family. For now, they live an internal life of loss.

Patrić creates a sinister atmosphere, one in which the two main characters tread lightly between illusions and dreams, hoping to survive another dreary day. We discover the suburban wasteland that Suzana finds herself in:

“People around here collapse into bed at the end of the day. They rise every morning with their cheap suburban alarms forcing them out again.”

Life isn’t so much quiet as it is poisonous, with streetlights buzzing and long silences from Jovan as they sit around the kitchen table for an evening meal, the summer heat stifling inside their humble home.

Jovan works as a janitor at a local hospital and his days are disrupted by acts of graffiti and violence that are becoming increasingly malevolent. For Jovan, the mysterious words that he cleans begin to erase his own poetry of the past. Still, short bursts of verse guide him through his dreary days of flickering florescent lights, the endless mopping of floors, brushes with dead bodies; his inner world of quiet desperation.

The mysterious graffiti culprit on the loose at the hospital works on the psyche of the hospital staff, especially Jovan’s, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Jovan and Suzana are confused and traumatized; they believe they might be blamed for the graffiti messages. Their lack of English keeps them in a blurry world, isolated and insecure.

Patrić’s suburban setting transforms into a dreamscape where pleasant scenes of suburban life–neighbors chatting in the front yard, seemingly idyllic bungalows lining the streets; laundry hung in the back yard, dogs barking in the distance–quickly become desolate ones. Suzana cooks dinner while her husband quietly ignores her, his mind wandering.

As Jovan and Suzana’s marriage teeters on the brink of collapse, they each try to survive in their own way attempting to bring normality back into their lives. Reclaiming their dreams, however, is more elusive than expected. Black Rock White City touches on the common denominator of human existence: ever-present memory and eternal hope for a better life and reclaimed dreams.

Like so many before them, Jovan and Suzana disappear into a country that claims it welcomes others but that in fact doesn’t understand how disconnected new migrants are from it. Black Rock White City will take its place as an important story of the migrant/refugee experience; it is at once a story of displacement but also the continuous struggle to belong. The experience of immigrants in Australia, is a vital one that needs telling and retelling. One reviewer called Black Rock White City an “Australian realist-Gothic, the genre that defines the national culture as a crushing of the human spirit. It owes a lot to [Christos] Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe.”

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Patrić said that he had indeed been inspired by Dead Europe including other Australian contemporary novels such as Monkey Grip by Helen Garner, Snail by Eric Dando, or Bliss by Peter Carey.

It is an essential story of Australia’s suburbs and the immigrant experience. Patrić, himself a poet, brings a sense of grace and ease to his emotionally powerful writing, establishing him as one of the most interesting writers of contemporary Australian fiction.

Referring to his own childhood experience, growing up outside of Melbourne, Patrić said, “I felt I came from a part of Melbourne that was the frontier, yet connected to the heart of the city. When I was a child, I felt like everyone who wasn’t indigenous had recently migrated. If it wasn’t your parents who had made the trip here from somewhere distant, then it was your grandparents who’d embarked on the Australian journey.” 

    Julia is a Sydney based writer covering sustainable living, innovation, books and art.

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