Emily Rhodes

A choice of first novels | 19 October 2017

A.S. Patric, Pajtim Statovci, Neal Ascherson and Lydia Ruffles tackle diaspora from both modern and historical perspectives

A choice of first novels | 19 October 2017
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Black Rock White City (Melville House, £16.99) is ostensibly about a spate of sinister graffiti in a Melbourne hospital. ‘The Trojan Flea’ is scrawled across X-ray screens; ‘I am so full of your death I can now only breathe your rot’ on a stairwell; and, on a dead body, ‘cut into the flesh with a scalpel, from throat to navel, is the word INSPIRATION’. A.S. Patric grabs his reader’s attention with the riddle of ‘Dr Graffito’s’ identity, while a more subtle mystery unfurls alongside.

Jovan, the hospital cleaner — whose job it is to remove the offensive graffiti — has come to Melbourne from Sarajevo, where he was a teacher and ‘used to wake in the mornings with poetry emerging in rhapsodies’. Now he no longer writes down his poems and makes little effort with his spoken English: ‘Everything that he has been serious about, all his work, was left behind with his native tongue.’

His wife, Suzana, was also a teacher at Sarajevo university and cleans in a suburban home. Before long, our urge to learn what has happened to their relationship is even more pressing than the desire to unmask Dr Graffito: why can Suzana no longer have sex with Jovan; why do ‘they say hello to each other and then find little to say’; and will they manage to salvage what they once had? Patricćgives an astute, affecting portrayal of adapting to life in a new country, navigating the shifting balance of grief and hope as his émigrés learn what cannot be left behind and what can.

The protagonists of Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia (Pushkin Press, £14.99) have also emigrated from war-torn Yugoslavia, but they go to Finland. First we meet Bekim, a young gay student who suffers from such loneliness that he buys a pet boa constrictor which ‘positioned itself around me like a protective wall, a halo’. His promiscuous sex life takes a surreal turn when he picks up an anthropomorphic cat in a nightclub.

We discover that the cat’s rude and abusive behaviour is similar to that of Bekim’s father, for the other strand of the novel’s dual narrative belongs to his mother, Emine. In rural Kosovo, we watch her go through the elaborate rituals of preparing for her wedding, which fatefully coincides with Tito’s death. It is a double tragedy for Emine, who suffers as a wife at the hands of her husband and as an Albanian at the hands of the Serbs: ‘Death was the very clothes we wore, and the whole city was wrapped in sheets doused in ash.’

They escape to Finland, but when the war is over, ‘the little sympathy we had received from people here ended as abruptly as if it had been shoved from the roof of the building.’ Seen as Westernised snobs back in Kosovo and outcasts in Finland, the family suffer a fate of in-betweenness: ‘We were cut off from two different countries that nonetheless had come to resemble each other more and more, and we no longer belonged in either one.’ Statovci offers the redemptive promise of love to leaven this stirring portrait of migration’s multi-faceted loneliness.

Neal Ascherson looks at the migrant experience through a historical lens in his gripping second world war novel, The Death of the Fronsac (Apollo, £18.99). His narrator is the Polish officer Maurgy Szczucki, newly attached to the French navy and posted to the Scottish seaport Greenock, where he is billeted with a local family. When a French warship mysteriously explodes in the harbour, killing several people, Szczucki finds himself caught in a lie from which he will never fully escape.

Ascherson, now in his eighties and an acclaimed journalist and historian, remembers his childhood fascination with Polish soldiers — ‘their swinging musketeer capes, their rattling language and their merry gallantry’. In this thoughtful portrait of their wartime experience, he points out the ‘sort of schizophrenia’ which affected them when they had to start thinking of the Russians as allies, and how swiftly, in peacetime, the British sentiment towards them changed: ‘Once heroic guests when we stood alone with Britain against Hitler, we had become guests who had overstayed their welcome.’

The Scottish aspects of the novel are just as rewarding, thanks to the author’s fine ear for dialect — ‘You’re three parts blootered’ — and vivid minor characters such as the ‘local nightingale’ Tibbie, who progresses from singing Robert Burns to preaching Labour politics.

The Death of the Fronsac shows the second world war to be — perhaps above all — a time when people moved around the world to fight, recover, escape and make new lives. This inspires insightful musing on the meaning of ‘home’, or, for Szczucki, the Polish word ojczyzna, with its added resonances of fatherland and honour. Ascherson shows that home is not just a physical place, but is also bound to a code of behaviour, a feeling and the heart.

I hoped to find ojczyzna in Lux Langley’s ‘word collection’ in The Taste of Blue Light by Lydia Ruffles (Quercus, £12.99), but I suppose that would have been too neat. Lux began her collection of interesting words during a summer internship at an art gallery. Just before the internship ended, she woke up in hospital with a gash in her arm, unable to remember how she got there. She returns to boarding school in an attempt to ‘find the old Lux and… climb back inside her and sew myself into her skin so I never get lost again’.

The boarding school treads a line between utopia and dystopia. Students are groomed to become ‘artists’ in an environment that fosters creativity but also cultish behaviour — they must wear all black, follow a strict diet and frequently recite the pledge: ‘We give it to art and we let go.’

Lux persists in trying to recover her missing memories, ‘like little silver fish darting behind rocks as soon as I catch a glimpse of them’, and Ruffles explores the fascinating, disconcerting effects of trauma as Lux suffers from nightmares, synaesthesia, blackouts, mood swings, out-of-body experiences and the feeling that she’s clothed in an ‘astronaut suit’. The process ‘feels like war and cancer and terrorism. And necrophilia and death and climate change’.

Ruffles’s narrator is unabashedly teenage, which may bring its share of silliness (felt, for instance, in games of ‘Shag, Collab or Kill’) and supreme self-involvement; but it also reminds us of adolescence’s intensity of feeling, bringing an invigorating fire to this debut.