6 Degrees of Separation, Book review

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ to ‘English Passengers’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first quarter of 2022 is over and a fresh one starts!

And because it’s the first Saturday of the month, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This time around I’m theming mine around stories set onboard ocean-going vessels. I think living close to a port — I can see the vehicles carriers and container ships in dock through my living room window as I write this — has somehow infected my subconscious!

Without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ by Julia Armfield (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which has only just been published in Australia. From what I can gather, it explores the aftermath of a deep-sea mission that goes wrong. This made me think of other books I have read that have involved the sea in some way, so my first link is:

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)

This engaging novel explores both the healing and dangerous aspects of life sailing the ocean. The 20-year-old protagonist has a controlling boyfriend, whose behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men. When the grandfather who raised her dies, she heads out on a sailing trip with an elderly couple as a way of dealing with her grief. She ends up falling in love with the ocean and reinvents herself as a sailor, ditching her boyfriend along the way. But several years later, when onboard a trawler with an all-male crew, she discovers there are dangers other than drowning with which she must contend.

Another novel about a young woman confronting danger on board a ship is…

Atlantic Black

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić (2017)

In this lyrical novel, a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood has her sense of freedom and bravura tested in the brief space of a day and a night. The entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938. Katerina, the daughter of an ambassador, is left to entertain herself when he mother falls ill. 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 — the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.

Another story in which a cruise ship features is…

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt (2018)

In this comedy of manners, a rich, morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times, flees Manhattan for Paris, taking her adult son and her cat (which she believes houses the spirit of her dead husband) with her. But from the moment the trio set foot on the cruise ship that takes them to Europe, a series of minor disasters befall them. And things don’t really improve when they get to France, either. It’s a funny book, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but when I recently tried to watch the film adaptation, I’m afraid I actually fell asleep!

Another book about travelling across the ocean to start a new life is…

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

The first half of this deeply reflective novel is set on an ocean liner bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is about the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years. Much of the early section is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allow you to build up a picture of what it was like onboard and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

Adventure of a different type features in the next novel, which is also partly set on a cruise ship…

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This suspense novel, set in the mid-1960s, is essentially the story of a holiday gone wrong — in the worst and most possibly terrifying way. It’s about a married couple onboard a cruise ship bound for Central America who are taken advantage of during the trip. The pair regard themselves as travellers, not tourists, but for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming. This is a book to really quicken the pulse!

Another novel about a seafaring adventure coping with threats of a different kind is…

English passengers

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale (2000)

This brilliant seafaring romp is told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters. It’s a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing halfway around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew brings a small expedition team with them that comprises a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a sea mission gone wrong via stories all set on ocean-going vessels to the final novel about a Manx smuggling vessel fleeing the authorities by travelling to the other end of the world!

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

A.S. Patrić, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Transit Lounge

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić

Atlantic Black

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.

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.





Reading Australia 2016

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, A.S. Patrić, Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Black Rock White City’ by A.S. Patrić

Black Rock White City by AS Patric

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2015.

A.S. Patric’s Black Rock White City is set in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in 1999 and tells a story not particularly common in Australian fiction — that of European migrants setting up a new life for themselves in a foreign land. In this case those migrants are Yugoslavian refugees who fled the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s.

The story largely revolves around married Serbian couple, Jovan and Suzan Brakochevich, whose two young children died in a UN refugee camp en route to Australia. Five years on they are still grappling with the loss and their marriage is on shaky ground.

Running parallel with this story is another:  at the bayside hospital where Jovan works, an anonymous person is scrawling graffiti  (on one occasion in blood on the walls of the operating theatre), vandalising property and carrying out sick stunts (filling a water cooler with human fat, for instance). Over time, the deeds and messages become increasingly gruesome and targeted, with devastating results. But who is carrying out these horrendous deeds? And for what purpose?

But this is not a crime novel, nor, indeed, a mystery with any clear-cut solution. Instead it forms an interesting backdrop for Jovan’s story, of a man who has endured unspeakable horrors in his homeland confronted, once again, by the worst that humanity can throw at him. Even in the safe refuge of a peaceful country and an institution that supposedly heals the sick, he witnesses yet more trauma. And, once again, he simply  gets on with his life.

Strangers in a strange land

The story is very much what it is like to be a migrant, one whose first language is not English, and the compromises that need to be made in order to survive in an unfamiliar culture. Jovan, for instance, was once a professor of literature at Belgrade University and a renowned poet, but now he’s a janitor who is often mocked for his poor grasp of English. (He speaks Russian and German, too, languages that are not useful in Australia.) He has given up on that side of his life; even though he still thinks in poetry, he has no desire to write it or read it.

Jovan is an articulate man and he wants to speak to his wife. What stops him time and again isn’t the pain, it’s a feeling that talking makes it trivial. Not that it makes it real—it makes it small. The reality is clear from when they open their eyes to when they close them, perforating even that boundary almost every night. The death of their two children isn’t the erasure of two beings. It is the loss of God and the skies, it is the loss of the past and the future, of all their small-voiced words and their hearts. The only possible response is suicide. To survive they have found a way to live without response.

Suzana is also working a manual job — as a carer for a disabled woman in Black Rock, a well-to-do bayside suburb (hence the title of the book — the White City is supposedly a direct translation of “Belgrade”), but she, too, was once a writer. She’s now more passionate about words and language than her husband and has devoted a lot of time to studying English (by watching TV and reading), softening her accent and writing in her new language. She’s distressed that Jovan no longer shares a love of words with her:

She knows that Jovan used to be able to turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if pitiful. It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia. And it still takes her breath away, an actual gasp of air at the top of her lungs, when she thinks how crucial poetry used to be to him. How Jovan used to wake in the mornings with poetry emerging in rhapsodies. How it used to drive him, his body slumping over a bedside table and writing with eyes that couldn’t open from sleep, and with a drowsy hand, poetry that cut through all the usual bullshit poetry was, the usual mediocrity, and opened up new ways of feeling, seeing, understanding and being. And now nothing. He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did.

Black Rock White City is also very much about the attitudes of others to refugees, even though so many characters in this novel — from the Brakochevich’s neighbours to the people they work with — are all migrants or the children of migrants. One of Jovan’s colleagues, a janitor with Greek heritage, is dumbfounded that Jovan, a tall, well-built man, is a refugee:

 “When you think refugee, you think black, brown or Asian. Skinny and small, because there’s never been a lot of food. But look at you. Raised by basketballers. Smiling like a fucking wood duck.”

Character versus plot

Interestingly, this is A.S. Patrić’s first novel. He’s an accomplished short story writer and can certainly write vivid, confident prose. His depiction of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs is pitch-perfect and he expertly captures the melancholia and purposeless drifting of suburban lives. But the overall narrative felt slightly uneven to me, because even though the malevolent hospital crimes thread is drawn together neatly at the end, it peters out somewhere near the middle. It’s almost as if Patrić couldn’t work out whether to write a character-driven novel or a plot-driven one — and the character-driven one won out.

However, as a novel about migration and displacement and of coming to terms with the horror of war long after the fact, it is extraordinarily good. There’s a moral force to the writing, which I loved, and despite the trauma of Jovan and Suzana’s lives, both in the past and in the present, it’s not without hope. These are people who are adjusting to a new reality, who still have dreams, who still need to make sense of the every day, who still carry pain but are learning to live with it. It’s a bold story.

Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

This is my 34th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

UPDATE: Congratulations to A.S. Patrić: Black Rock White City was named winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award a little over an hour after I posted this review.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award

The 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

Miles Franklin Literary AwardEarlier today the longlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced. The prize is awarded each year to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.

Unfortunately, because the new official website is so badly designed and so lacking in content I can’t tell you when the shortlist will be announced nor when the winner will be named. I can’t even tell you how much money the prize is worth to the winning author. I can, however, tell you who the sponsor* is, but I’ll be blowed if I’m going to give them a plug when the website doesn’t appear to have us readers in mind — it seems more concerned with promoting itself rather than the award and doesn’t even bother to name the publishers of each longlisted title.

Anyway, now that my rant is over, here are the books on the list in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my review in full and I’ve included availability information for UK readers:

Ghost River by Tony Birch

Ghost River by Tony Birch (UQP)
‘You find yourself down at the bottom of the river, for some it’s time to give into her. But other times, young fellas like you two, you got to fight your way back. Show the river you got courage and is ready to live.’ The river is a place of history and secrets. For Ren and Sonny, two unlikely friends, it’s a place of freedom and adventure. For a group of storytelling vagrants, it’s a refuge. And for the isolated daughter of a cult reverend, it’s an escape. Each time they visit, another secret slips into its ancient waters. But change and trouble are coming — to the river and to the lives of those who love it. Who will have the courage to fight and survive and what will be the cost?
This book is available in the UK in paperback and ebook editions.

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text)
Western Australia, the wheatbelt. Lew McLeod has been travelling and working with Painter Hayes since he was a boy. Shearing, charcoal burning — whatever comes. Painter made him his first pair of shoes. It’s a hard and uncertain life but it’s the only one he knows. But Lew’s a grown man now. And with this latest job, shearing for John Drysdale and his daughter Clara, everything will change.
This book is available in the UK in paperback and ebook editions.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe)
It is the winter of 1985. Hope Farm sticks out of the ragged landscape like a decaying tooth, its weatherboard walls sagging into the undergrowth. Silver’s mother, Ishtar, has fallen for the charismatic Miller, and the three of them have moved to the rural hippie commune to make a new start. At Hope, Silver finds unexpected friendship and, at last, a place to call home. But it is also here that, at just thirteen, she is thrust into an unrelenting adult world — and the walls begin to come tumbling down, with deadly consequences.
Published in the UK  in ebook and audio book. The paperback will be published on 9 June.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Leap by Myfanwy Jones (Allen & Unwin)
Joe lives-despite himself. Driven by the need to atone for the neglect of a single tragic summer’s night, he works at nothing jobs and, in his spare time, trains his body and mind to conquer the hostile environment that took his love and smashed up his future. So when a breathless girl turns up on the doorstep, why does he let her in? Isn’t he done with love and hope? On the other side of the city, graphic designer Elise is watching her marriage bleed out. She retreats to the only place that holds any meaning for her-the tiger enclosure at the zoo-where, for reasons she barely understands, she starts to sketch the beautiful killers.
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury)
It has been six months since Tess Müller stopped speaking. Her silence is baffling to her parents, her teachers and her younger sister Meg, but the more urgent mystery for both girls is where their mother, Evangeline, goes each day, pushing an empty pram and returning home wet, muddy and dishevelled. Their father, Stefan, struggling with his own losses, tends to his apiary and tries to understand why his bees are disappearing. But after he discovers a car wreck and human remains on their farm, old secrets emerge to threaten the fragile family.
Published in the UK in hardcover and ebook.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr
On a cattle station that stretches beyond the horizon, seven people are trapped by their history and the need to make a living. Trevor Wilkie, the good father, holds it all together, promising his sons a future he no longer believes in himself. The boys, free to roam the world’s biggest backyard, have nowhere to go. Trevor’s father, Murray, is the keeper of stories and the holder of the deed. Murray has no intention of giving up what his forefathers created. But the drought is winning. The cattle are ribs. The bills keep coming. And one day, on the way to town, an accident changes everything.
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.


Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić (Transit Lounge)
During a hot Melbourne summer Jovan’s cleaning work at a bayside hospital is disrupted by acts of graffiti and violence becoming increasingly malevolent. For Jovan the mysterious words that must be cleaned away dislodge the poetry of the past. He and his wife Suzana were forced to flee Sarajevo and the death of their children. Intensely human, yet majestic in its moral vision, Black Rock White City is an essential story of Australia’s suburbs now, of displacement and immediate threat, and the unexpected responses of two refugees as they try to reclaim their dreams. It is a breathtaking roar of energy that explores the immigrant experience with ferocity, beauty and humour.
This book is available in the UK in ebook; the paperback edition can be purchased direct from the publisher.


Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Pan MacMillan Australia)
Salt Creek, 1855, lies at the far reaches of the remote, beautiful and inhospitable coastal region, the Coorong, in the new province of South Australia. The area, just opened to graziers willing to chance their luck, becomes home to Stanton Finch and his large family, including fifteen-year-old Hester Finch. Once wealthy political activists, the Finch family has fallen on hard times. Cut adrift from the polite society they were raised to be part of, Hester and her siblings make connections where they can: with the few travellers that pass along the nearby stock route – among them a young artist, Charles – and the Ngarrindjeri people they have dispossessed. Over the years that pass, and Aboriginal boy, Tully, at first a friend, becomes part of the family. Stanton’s attempts to tame the harsh landscape bring ruin to the Ngarrindjeri people’s homes and livelihoods, and unleash a chain of events that will tear the family asunder. As Hester witnesses the destruction of the Ngarrindjeri’s subtle culture and the ideals that her family once held so close, she begins to wonder what civilization is. Was it for this life and this world that she was educated?
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue, but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.
Only published in Australia; due to be published in the UK on 2 June.

Note that Lisa Hill has a round-up post, including links to reviews, on her blog AnzLitLovers.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?

* Update on 6 April: I now realise this isn’t the sponsor, but the trustee of the award, but my point about self-promotion still stands.