Ian Colford’s Reviews > Black Rock White City

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Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric

Read in February 2019

4 of 5 stars

In his unsettling and explosive first novel, A. S. Patrić tells the story of Jovan and Suzana Brakochevich, Serbian refugees living in Melbourne, Australia. Jovan is a janitor at a hospital. Suzana performs household chores for families in a suburb called Black Rock. In Sarajevo before the war both had been educators, lecturing on literature at the university. Jovan was a published poet, Suzana a fiction writer. They also had a son and daughter. When the war came they were forced out of their teaching positions, persecuted and tortured. Fleeing the conflict, Jovan and Suzana eventually escaped to Australia, but their children did not survive, perishing under tragic circumstances in a refugee camp. Years later the parents exist in a purgatory of guilt and self-loathing and suffer from a kind of emotional paralysis. Jovan no longer writes and the two barely communicate. At the hospital, graffiti has started appearing, and Jovan is tasked with cleaning away the cryptic and eerily disturbing messages and drawings from the building’s walls and floors. Despite the increased vigilance of hospital staff, the wave of vandalism persists and evolves, the perpetrator emboldened by success. Letters are carved into the skin of a corpse; after a message appears on her eye chart an ophthalmologist commits suicide. Then a woman is gruesomely murdered. Jovan, disgusted by the public’s fascination with the unknown culprit, whom he calls Dr Graffito, starts to wonder if the messages are targeting him personally. As the weeks pass and the situation at the hospital escalates, Jovan’s ongoing affair with a sexually ravenous dentist becomes combative, he encounters a drug-addled nurse who convinces herself that Jovan is the graffiti artist, and Suzana’s memories of a university professor from her student days who treated her with astonishing cruelty become more vivid. In the final scene—a frenetic crescendo—some questions are resolved, others are not. Black Rock White City, never simple or easy, pulls the reader into the grim, haunted reality that refugees like Jovan and Suzana inhabit, a world that has been shattered by senseless brutality and violence that obliterates everything in its path. But at the end of their story we can see that a seed of hope has been planted: clearly they will never put the past behind them, but together maybe they can move toward a better future. Winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.