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

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’.

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