Black Rock, White City by A.S. Patrić
I was really excited to read this book, mainly because most of it is set in the Melbourne suburb of Black Rock, which is not too far from where I live. I’ve been reading a lot more Australian fiction than I used to, but for the most part, particularly with more literary works, it is still the stuff of legend. Whether it’s the wild bushranger exploits of Peter Carey’s Kelly gang and Christopher Koch’s Lost Voices, or the Aussie battler nostalgia of Tim Winton’s Cloud Street, much Australian literature doesn’t seem to capture times and places that I’ve seen or lived through. Black Rock, White City is set in the very near past: it is the story of a couple who have escaped the horrors of the Bosnian war to make a new life in Melbourne, Australia. The tragedy they have suffered has unfortunately pushed them apart and so, instead of finding solace and support in each other to help manage the displacement and isolation they feel in their new lives, they struggle on, each in their own private bubble of loneliness and pain.
Their displacement is not only physical, but social — at home they were academics, intellects and writers. Jovan was a respected poet. Now he is a janitor at the Sandringham hospital, while Suzannah cleans for a family in an affluent suburb. Jovan wears his foreignness like a badge of honour: although they have been in Australia for several years, he has not tried to improve his English. On the flip side, his colleagues do not even bother to try to pronounce his name, simply shortening it to “Joe” in typical Aussie fashion. Jovan’s refusal to fit in isn’t simply stubbornness: he is in stasis, in a holding pattern as he tries to deal with the experiences he has fled — he no longer writes either, as if something that was such an essential part of himself might be the key to unlocking emotions he is not yet ready to face.
Although he has turned his back on words however, they haunt him in a surprising and chilling way. A mystery graffiti artist is leaving cryptic and threatening messages all over the hospital and it falls to Jovan to clean up each mess as it occurs. The mystery deepens. Who is Dr. Graffito? Is he personally targeting Jovan? Is it Jovan himself?
I found Black Rock, White City an absorbing read. The main character, Jovan, is a difficult character to like — he’s stubborn and somewhat grumpy and seems cold towards his wife, who wants to reconnect with him, for them to be able to move forward with their lives rather than simply surviving under the weight of what they’ve left behind. However, because we are privy to his thoughts and memories, we understand where he is coming from; we empathise. This is why I find this book more relatable than some of the more historically-based Australian-set fiction on offer. I live in a very multi-cultural area of Melbourne and there is such a wide variety of personal stories around me — different paths that have led each person to build their home here. I imagine that there are many Jovans amongst them.
Let’s make the effort to pronounce their names correctly.
Oh yeah, and this book won last year’s Miles Franklin award. But I would recommend it to you even if it hadn’t.