2015, 248 p.
“I never taught you how useless words are, did I?” says Jovan, encountering a former student, who offers her stilted condolences on the deaths of Jovan’s children in a far-off country in a far-off time. Ah, but words are not useless to Jovan, nor to this novel, which interweaves graffiti, poetry and silence in an exploration of grief and displacement set in bayside Melbourne during the 1990s.
Jovan had been a Bosnian poet and, like his wife Suzana, an academic in the former Yugoslavia, but that is in the past. Now, newly arrived in Australia, Jovan is a hospital cleaner, while Suzana does domestic work. They are distanced from each other, but joined by a raw, inarticulate grief over what they left behind in Sarajevo. Jovan is sleeping around, Suzana teeters on the edge of mental illness and buries herself in literature.
At the hospital where Jovan works, an unidentified graffiti artists carves, daubs and etches cryptic messages that become increasingly violent and unhinged. This mystery is the hook that draws you into the book, but by half-way through you realize that the story lies elsewhere. Not that the thriller aspect is abandoned completely, because it certainly drags you by the hand in the closing pages which were quite unputdownable. But for me the real strength of the book was in the layering of Jovan and Suzana as characters, and their tentative negotiation of a new life in a new place.
The book is written in present tense, which usually I bridle against. But in this case, I barely noticed. Many of the sentences are short, and the text is disrupted by bursts of poetry. The duality of the book is reflected in the title: Black Rock (the bayside suburb) White City (the literal translation of ‘Belgrade’).
The cover carries a blurb from Christos Tsiolkas, and there are resonances here of Tsiolkas’ book Dead Europe. However, it’s very much an Australian book, and its darkness is set against a hot dazzling Australian summer. It’s very good- I’m detecting murmurings of ‘Miles Franklin’ and I think they’re right. Reviewers often use the word “powerful” too often to describe a book that is either engulfing or a steamroller. This book is powerful, but quietly powerful in terms of the depth of its observation, the handling of different genres and purposes, and the poetry of its writing.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: I’d heard of it.
The Saturday Paper review
SMH review by Owen Richardson