Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić

25283641Fiction – Kindle edition. Transit Lounge, 2015. 157 pgs. Purchased.

Yugoslavian refugees, Jovan and Suzan Brakochevich, resettled in the suburbs of Melbourne after their two young children died in a UN refugee camp during the Balkan War. Both husband and wife blame each other – Suzan didn’t eat the poisoned food so perhaps she knew; Jovan didn’t leave Sarajevo when Suzan wanted them to – and themselves for the death of their children, leaving their marriage on shaky ground as the new millennium dawns in Australia.

Meanwhile, an anonymous person has started scrawling graffiti and performing stunts at the hospital where Jovan works as a janitor. The acts of vandalism start out with intriguing phrases but quickly escalate, becoming more gruesome (words written in blood from the operating room) and more disturbing (a water cooler filled with human fat from the biohazard bin).

While the identity of the perpetrator is unknown, Patrić’s novel isn’t entirely focused on solving these crimes. Rather, cleaning up the graffiti and vandalism opens a window into Jovan’s past and his ability to cope with the worst that humanity can throw at him even as he finds himself living in a peaceful country and working in a healing-focused institution.

This is one of those novels that I feel ill-equipped to review. I did not expect such a short book (it is only 157 pages on Kindle) to carry such an impact, and the adjectives that come to mind – poignant, moving, bleak, thought-provoking – seem too common to explain my feelings towards this book.

It is easier for me to name the criticisms I have. Namely, the balance between the mystery and the exploration of Jovan’s past often felt tilted towards one at the expense of the other. I would become lost in the whodunit element and then abruptly be reminded that isn’t the focus of the novel.

It feels unfair to harp on that criticism when I cannot pontificate on what I loved about the novel, so I’ll end with the assertion that this is one of the most poignant books I’ve read about the refugee experience and about the events of the Bosnian genocide. I found it far more affecting than what is probably the most well-known (and praised) novel about the Bosnian genocide, Girl at War by Sara Nović, which was incidentally published the same year as Patrić’s novel.

‘Black Rock White City’ won the Miles Franklin Award for Literary Fiction, Australia’s most prestigious literary award, in 2016.

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