Anna Krien is highly regarded for her deeply researched and incisive long-form journalism. Her books Night Games and Into the Woods, along with two Quarterly Essays, have cemented her as one of this country’s leading voices on contemporary sociopolitical and environmental issues, and an advocate for fairness and reason.
Act of Grace, Krien’s debut novel, worries at some of the same concerns as her nonfiction: the legacy of the war in the Middle East, Australia’s racism towards Muslims, the ongoing denial of rights to Indigenous Australians, and climate change. Underlying these contemporary divisions in the novel is the question of what role art plays in society.
The book opens with the divergent stories of four characters recovering from trauma. Toohey, an Iraq veteran, reveals his psychological battle scars in violent eruptions towards his family. His son, Gerry, survives Toohey’s rage by keeping an emotional distance from others, his hurt uncoiling into anger. Robbie, a directionless young artist, is finding her place in her father’s family history – he is a survivor of the Stolen Generations – while also coming to terms with his deteriorating health. Nasim, a gifted musician and a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s regime, is rebuilding her life in Australia, having arrived under the shelter of a stolen identity.
Krien’s early chapters read as accomplished standalone pieces, but the pace shifts as these stories converge, leaving a subtle, yet visible, seam as they become an interwoven narrative. The fulcrum around which these characters’ lives turn is the novel’s titular “act of grace”: a compensation payment made by the Australian Army to an Iraqi woman when her infant is killed in crossfire.
Krien’s talent lies in applying her investigative eye to character development; she trusts the reader to draw their own conclusions about moral ambiguity. Act of Grace asks what pushes otherwise decent people to behave in ugly ways. By examining the small and large brutalities people commit against each other, Krien questions the simplistic binaries of love and hate, and challenges the reader to uncover their capacity for empathy and respect for humanity, even in its failings. Through the darkness, Act of Grace signals hope: Krien invites us to seize the power we each have to change ourselves and to consciously and positively shape the world we live in.
Black Inc, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 12, 2019 as "Anna Krien, Act of Grace".
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