Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 288 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Atlantic Black is the new novel by A.S. Patrić, whose debut, Black Rock White City, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2016. That novel was set in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999 and told the story of a married Serbian couple coming to terms with a new life in a new country. But his latest novel couldn’t be more far removed — in setting, style and time period — for the entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938.
Written in rich, lyrical prose, Patrić turns his perceptive eye towards a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood and shows us how her sense of freedom and bravura is tested in the brief space of a day and a night.
Tale of an ambassador’s daughter
Seventeen-year-old Katerina Klova is the daughter of an ambassador. She has lived a cultured, albeit sheltered, life, and now she is travelling from Mexico to Europe with her mother on board RMS Aquitaine.
There are hints that all is not well with her parent’s relationship (her father has been recalled from Paris to Moscow) and her older brother, Kornel, whom she adores, writes secret letters to her, confessing his troubles at the military academy to which he is attached. Her relationship with her mother, Anne, is also strained, for Anne watches her every move and even reads her personal diary.
The diary has become a fiction over the last year, the “Katerina” within it only partially resembling its author. The pages are intended to confuse her interloper, sometimes to torment her, though it began as nothing more than teasing.
When Anne falls ill on the ship, midway across the Atlantic, Katerina seems relatively unconcerned: she’s now free to do as she likes. It’s both exciting and terrifying, but Katerina is a smart girl, confident and unafraid to mix with people of all classes and distinctions.
Of course, she’s not as worldly-wise as she thinks, and is occasionally oblivious to the personal danger she often finds herself in — mostly, it has to be said, from men who do not have her best interests at heart — so that the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.
Microcosm of the world
Patrić explores a lot of themes in this wonderful novel, not least the interplay between generations, nationalities and classes, almost as if the ship is a microcosm of the world, which, as we know, was on the verge of a devastating global war at the time.
There’s a sense of impending doom throughout (Anne’s illness in which she plucks out her own eyeball could, perhaps, be seen as metaphor for the violence that awaits Europe), but this is nicely balanced by the party-like atmosphere as the ship prepares for the big New Year’s Eve ball.
The narrative pacing comes in waves (pun fully intended), surging forth at intervals to keep the reader turning the pages, helped also by the use of present tense, which creates a sense of urgency. The denouement, unexpected and shocking, is a fitting conclusion to a historical novel that treads dark and often treacherous territory. I loved it.
For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers.
Note that Atlantic Black has not yet been published outside of Australia, but it is available to download in Kindle format in the UK, US and Canada.