Microviews Vol. 54: War in Pieces

on Friday, April 17, 2015
Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić
For a country built on waves of immigration, Australian seems oddly lacking in great novels of the immigrant experience. Off hand, there's Pino Bossi's Australia Cane, Arnold Zable's Cafe Scheherezade and The Boat by Nam Le (admittedly not a novel but unquestionably brilliant). And The Arrival by Shaun Tan has to crack a mention, even if it is graphic fiction. Now elbowing its way into the milieu comes A.S. Patrić's debut long-former (he has published short story collections and a novella), Black Rock White City, a book that I am convinced will be held among the greats in years to come. With tight, carefully crafted prose Patrić gives us a story that transcends any particular ethnicity, one that delves deep into the existential conundrum of transplanted life. Jovan and Suzana are both cleaners; he mops the floor of a bayside hospital while she tidies the homes of the privileged. Back in Serbia, before their lives were destroyed, before their children died, they were part of the literary elite. Highly educated, celebrated. Having fled to Australia, they live out the quiet drudgery of subsistence while coming to terms - if that is even possible - with their shared trauma. Jovan wanders, he throws himself into an essentially meaningless affair. Suzana exists in a state of constant self-negation, of guilt and blame. And yet, through it all they seem to be navigating a way back to love. Behind the complexity of the relationships, both with each other and those around them, Patrić also weaves a sinister mystery. Someone is daubing the hospital walls with nasty, pointed graffiti. Every letter is an accusation, every phrase a dagger in Jovan's chest. It is easy to get caught up in the desire to discover the identity of this Dr. Graffito (as Jovan calls him) but Patrić is too savvy a writer to allow his book to descend to the level of cheap thriller. The graffiti serves a more poetic purpose: it juxtaposes with Jovan's own poetry in what seems to be a battle for meaning. Black Rock White City is a sparely written book of big ideas. Patrić lays bare the minutiae of the new immigrant's daily struggle with perfect pitch and amazing beauty; the constant mispronunciations, the cultural clashes, the daily sacrifices, the small pleasures. That he dares to do so from the side of a conflict often seen as 'the baddies' makes it all the more powerful. Indeed, Black Rock White City goes to show that simple dichotomies don't work when we talk about war. Everyone is a victim. Lives are ruined. Tragedy does not take sides. And therein lies the knockout blow of this truly wonderful novel: the scars endure, the poison continues to course through the vein, but simple humanity might still triumph.
5 Out of 5 Soapy Buckets

Down To The River by SJ Finn
Brave is the author willing to give considered thought to the great taboos of our times. In Down To The River, SJ Finn turns her insightful gaze to what is, to my mind, the greatest taboo right now: pedophilia. Never fear. This isn't some morally suspect Lolita-lite. Nor is it a heavy-handed piece of judgemental grandstanding. Finn seems more interested in the way the issue affects the various players around it. Rather cleverly, she situates the story in a country town, a perfect fishbowl in which to scratch at society's scabs. Dungower is a typical Victorian backwater. Everyone knows everyone else. Legacies loom large, friendships endure. Unfortunately, so too do grudges and petty rivalries. And that's before the dark secrets bubble to the surface. Enter Jordan Phelps, twice convicted child sex offender, his past kept quiet until he is accused of abusing two local boys. With the tinderbox lit and exploding, the townsfolk spin like a Catherine Wheel, scorching and fizzling in a multitude of colours. Down To The River is, above all, a thoughtful examination of a town in crisis. Phelps is more catalyst than character - he brings out both the best and worst in the townsfolk but otherwise exists on the periphery of the story. Of more concern to Finn is the failing relationship between local journo Joni Miller and her partner Tiff. To them, small town life proves toxic. That Joni is unwittingly tied to Dungower's own child sex scandal, herself a victim of sorts, widens the chasm between them. Down To The River is a sharp and impressively woven novel but there is one jarring caveat. The courtroom scene, when Phelps is finally hauled before a magistrate to face the charges, is strangely inauthentic. Procedurally - speaking as a lawyer - it just doesn't ring true, owing more to American courtroom dramas than actual Australian legal process. It is a peculiar stumble for a book that is otherwise so packed with perceptive truths.
4 Out Of 5 Pitchforks

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner
In the sprawling fields of literature, legends sprout like unchecked weeds. Six months ago, very few people had heard of the inter-war German journalist and author Ernst Haffner. Then word began to leak about a lost classic, recently rediscovered and soon to be translated. That the book, banned and burned by the Nazis, had for so long been forgotten was itself worthy of note. But it is the fate of its author that really got tongues flapping. Sometime in the early 1940s, Ernst Haffer just vanished. What's more, all official records of him also disappeared. For all intents and purposes, Haffner did not exist. With a back story like that, it was hard not to be excited about the release of Blood Brothers. Unfortunately, it was equally hard for the book to live up to the hype. Blood Brothers is a gritty tale of dispossessed youth in Weimar Germany. Thugs, thieves, rent boys, scammers, they do what they can to get by, always striving to stay one step ahead of the authorities. The gang splinters and reconstitutes, some leave to pursue more legitimate paths, others spiral downwards into outright desperation and depravity. It is about as unflattering a portrait any author could paint of one society's seedy underbelly. And that is where Haffner really excelled. Blood Brothers is a tough book; it pulls no punches. It is also rather disjointed and episodic. As a novel I'm not quite sure it works. But as an indictment of a country in decline, a foretelling of horrors to come, it is almost without equal.
3.5 Out Of 5 Picked Pockets

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen
Science has never been my thing. Still, I know enough to understand the basics of conditioning. Most monkeys administered a nasty shock will avoid doing whatever they were doing when the jolt hit. Many learn the first time. What gives? you may ask. Well, it turns out that when it comes to reading I rank somewhere below your average rhesus. Last time I tried a Peirene book, the staggeringly bleak heartbreaker By The Sea, I almost needed to be committed. It should have been enough to steer me away from anything else they published. Yet, sub-primate that I am, I picked up Aki Ollikainen's White Hunger despite having read that it was much like Cormac McCarthy's The Road minus the glimmers of hope. Set during a brutal Nordic winter, where crops have failed and people are succumbing to starvation, disease and hypothermia, it tells a tale not dissimilar to McCarthy's book albeit more grounded in historical reality. A young family sets off on foot towards Russia in the hope of finding food. That's about it. They trudge across the frozen wasteland, witnessing the horrible casualties in nature's war against humankind. Readers would do well not to get too attached to anyone - one by one they die sad, horrible deaths. Even the small mercies prove cruel and unforgiving. White Hunger is a harrowing book. It shows us for the insignificant creatures we really are while stripping away the facade of civility. It is, however, also quite brilliant. You will learn more about yourself than you might ever care to know. Just be sure to tuck some money away before you read it. You're going to need a therapist when you're done and Medicare only covers so much of the cost.
4 Out of 5 Frozen Mudcakes


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