I’m a sort of reader who doesn’t like to give up on books easily, but this latest book club read, an acclaimed debut novel from a Serbian-born Australian writer, really tested my patience for a good hundred pages before I finally started to find it somewhat rewarding.
Set in Melbourne, Black Rock White City tells the story of a migrant couple from the former Yugoslavia, who’ve lost everything in the bloody 90s Balkan conflict, including their two young children. The two countries are linked by the title: Black Rock is a beachside suburb in Melbourne while “White City” is a literal translation of Belgrade. Now settled in Australia, Jovan and Suzana have jobs way beneath their level of education: he works as a cleaner at the Sandringham Hospital and she cleans other people’s houses. Back home they were both academics living in the world of words; Jovan was a poet while Suzana was writing a novel. None of them has done much writing in Melbourne, and Jovan’s refusal to learn English beyond the basic level is almost a matter of principle for him.
Words however come to haunt Jovan in the shape of bizarre and sinister graffiti left on the walls of the hospital he works at by a mysterious vandal nicknamed Dr Graffito. Later on the perpetrator goes on to carve words into a corpse, and it’s implied that his deeds drive a staff member to a suicide.
The biggest stumbling block for me at the beginning was Patrić’s prose and the kind of hyper-articulate style that’s hard to pull off without coming off as verbose and pretentious. There’s an over-reliance on present tense, weighty words, and little to distinguish the characters between each other since they all have the same voice as the author. This was especially obvious in case of Jelka, Suzana’s migrant friend with whom she has nothing in common other than their native language; she is supposed to vapid and shallow yet there’s little to distinguish her dialogue from anyone else in the novel. Then there are passages like, All she could see… was the halo of an explosion from his fusion-powered mind. Baaaaarf.
The entire Dr Graffito plot clearly serves thematic purposes rather than functioning as an actual crime thriller, in fact if you regard it as the latter it’s resolved in a manner that hardly any fan of crime genre would find satisfying. Which is fine, but I questioned whether it needed to take up as much space as it did, especially when it veers into a tedious subplot about Jovan befriending a journalist writing a book on graffiti and yet more ponderous heavy-handed philosophising.
In all honesty, Jovan and Suzana‘s migrant experience and their attempts to heal their marriage were a compelling topic to explore all on their own. You learn more about the unimaginable loss and suffering they went through during the war midway through the book, and the parts that deal with their painful past and present are often powerful and compelling. In the end I’m glad I stuck with Black Rock White City, but it’s an uneven read to say the least.