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Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

Atlantic Black by A. S. Patrić

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The only escape from being prey, running from birth to death, was to look into the reflection and understand not only the face as a breathing, real presence in the world, which was obvious to the dumbest ape or monkey, but to breathe into that reflection and see the ghost behind the face…A monster or an angel, something that could destroy the world and eat it all up, or something that could recreate the whole of existence and make paradise.
— A.S. Patrić, "Atlantic Black"

A.S. Patrić’s Atlantic Black is as shadowy liquid as the its title suggests. I read this entire novel feeling as though I was floating through a strange dream, moving through water, a shifting, uncertain landscape. Death comes up often here, sometimes as surrender, sometimes as liberation, a spectre never lingering far from the action at hand.

The book follows Katerina Klova, travelling on the ocean liner Aquitania, across the Atlantic, on New Year’s Eve 1938. We are told she is travelling with her mother, but a psychotic episode has confined her to the ship’s infirmary, leaving us with a Katerina who is exploring this unprecedented independence that has been thrust upon her. She’s an interesting one, this girl …or woman — Katerina is not yet sure herself which she is. Seventeen years old and the daughter of an ambassador, Katerina manages to be both worldly and sheltered at the same time. She’s constantly testing the world around her, not so much in order to work it out, but to define who and what she is in relation to it.

She moves about the ship somewhat aimlessly, her interactions with other passengers becoming more odd and dreamlike as 1938 draws to a close. There are many Wizard of Oz references throughout the book and indeed, Katerina seems to be as out of place in the world as Dorothy is in Oz. She is a chameleon, one minute unprotected and vulnerable, the next aggressive and manipulative. You fear for her in some of the situations she finds herself in, and then you wonder if perhaps she is the one people should be wary of. She puts on and discards costumes like a child playing dress-ups, as though trying to study the different responses each version of herself elicits from the world. The world of course being Aquitania. The whole world distilled down into one ship.

Although we spend the entire novel in Katerina’s head, we never feel close to her. She is elusive and secretive, qualities that she has perhaps developed in response to the difficult relationship she has with her mother, who seeks to know all Katerina’s secrets, but withholds important information from her, with devastating effect.

Patrić’s writing is rich and beautiful and, as he is much more well-read than I, his constant literary references introduced me to many beautiful snippets of poetry that add to the haunting nature of this book.