A. S. Patrić
On the surface, A. S. Patrić’s Atlantic Black is the story of a 17-year-old girl, Katerina Klova, and the 24 hours she spends unaccompanied aboard the Aquitania as it steams across the Atlantic on New Year’s Eve 1938. Her travelling companion, mother Anne, is recovering from a psychotic breakdown during which she’s attempted to gouge out her own eye and is restrained in the ship’s infirmary. Katerina is at once vulnerable and violent, dressed in her mother’s clothes and fur, adrift on the brink of adulthood. Many things are teetering on the edge: the year, as it passes; class distinctions, crumbling in the artificial air of the ship; the futures of Katerina’s brother, Kornél, and father Audrius; Anne’s sanity; and the world itself, on the precipice of war.
It’s a rich set-up with plenty of potential, but excepting the gripping ending, the plot is the least interesting thing here. In form and theme, there are echoes of D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel or the fiction of Ivan Klíma in the pointed lack of realism, particularly in dialogue, and in the broader meditations, embedded stories and thumping symbolism of blood, punctures, memories and messages.
It’s Patrić’s stunning style, though, that mesmerises. Atlantic Black reads like a dreamscape. There’s no irony here, no winking Aussie flippancy that so often undercuts attempts at serious fiction. Patrić’s prose is ambitious and on the edge of pretension, with its present tense, third person fragments: “Standing isn’t easy. She’d rather close her eyes and listen to the harmonium player. Realises he’s gone and there’s no more music. Surprised she didn’t notice it stop.” When the Atlantic is choppy, so are Patrić’s sentences; a haunting effect also seen in Murray Bail’s 2012 The Voyage.
Atlantic Black may well be conscious of its predecessors but it’s not derivative. Rather, it’s the logical companion to Patrić’s Miles Franklin-winning Black Rock White City. Katerina’s father, Audrius, is a Russian diplomat; her mother is English and never becomes proficient in her husband’s language. Katerina sometimes answers to Kitty as she wanders the ship, trapped between the new world and the old, in evening gowns and valenki and ushanka. Black Rock White City is gritty suburban realism with a displaced person as protagonist, struggling to adapt to Australian life. In Atlantic Black, it’s Patrić’s Slavic sensibility that is adrift on the ocean, far from familiar shores, in search of a home. LS
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "A. S. Patrić, Atlantic Black". Subscribe here.