Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2017

Atlantic Black, by A. S. Patric

Atlantic Black is a book which repays patience.  Don’t start reading it expecting to understand everything that’s going on, it will take its own time for all the pieces to fall into place.

The central premise is this: what happens if a precocious and superficially worldly teenage girl is suddenly all alone with no one to protect or guide her in a disinterested and irresponsible society?  Patric’s microcosm of society is aboard an ocean liner and Katerina is travelling with her mother from Mexico to Europe, when amid the revelry of New Year’s Eve her mother is taken ill and Katerina is free to test out her independence, free from all constraints.

This territory of adolescent risk-taking has already been mined, memorably in Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl, (see my review) where Krauth’s character in her adolescent hubris uses internet technology to encounter the kind of monsters all parents fear.  But Patric has abandoned the interconnected 21st century to show us this adolescent quest for independence at its most elemental.  RMS Aquitania is not a contemporary cruise ship … instead it is an ocean liner suspended wholly in the isolation of the Atlantic Ocean in winter.  The year is the fateful 1939 and the only form of communication is the telegraph, open to passengers only during business hours.  This is not a scenario where Katerina can text or phone her friends and family or chat to them on Facebook, and she has to negotiate her way round a ship full of complete strangers.  Knowing as we do the peril that can befall grown women on cruise ships, this scenario has all the ingredients for disaster, and Katerina has only her own resources and judgement to fall back on…

The strangers she confronts come from all stations of life, including the wealthy leisured class to which Katerina belongs, working people including the staff, and all sorts in between.  Not all of them are benign.

So, we see Katerina oscillate between concern for her erratic mother and her delight in her independence.  Although worried about her mother’s mental health, Katerina relishes her freedom and tests the boundaries by acting like an adult.  There are symbolic changes: she goes about wearing high heels and her mother’s elegant dresses and fur coats; and she signs for meals in the dining room although she doesn’t know how to order because her mother has always done it for her. But there are also behavioural and attitudinal changes: She demands service from staff who are used to treating her as a child under the care of her mother, and she behaves aggressively towards them when they hesitate to do what she wants.  More crucially, she puts herself at risk by going about alone when there are, as always, men who will prey on women who are alone and vulnerable.

Psychologically, Katerina is not worried enough about her mother to respond to a message from her.  Like any teenager she vacillates between lack of confidence and aggressive bravura. She interprets adulthood as ruthless uncaring, but finds herself succumbing to bouts of compassion for others.  Sometimes she is lonely and afraid but she despises the people around her who might otherwise have been of some help to her.  She needs a friend, but is too judgemental to make one – she doesn’t have the adult awareness that everyone is flawed one way or another.

Complicating everything is the sense of carnival.  It’s New Year’s Eve and everyone is in costume and released from their usual inhibitions.  Service from the overworked staff is patchy, and the doctor and nurses in the infirmary are overwhelmed by the mayhem.  People are not just damaged by injuries of one sort or another, some are also psychologically damaged.

And against all this… real life is going on.  There is the impending war that everyone fears, there is the crisis in Katerina’s parents’ relationship, and there is her brother Kornél’s fragile mental health which she learns about from letters withheld by her mother.

The narrative arc comes together to create a sense of impending disaster with a denouement that is both wholly unexpected and devastating, and the prose is brilliant: it chops and changes like the movement of the ocean, sometimes seeming to stall and at other times racing along in overwhelming waves.  (The last time I came across this effect in a novel was in Murray Bail’s The Voyage, a beautiful work of fiction if you can track a copy down).  Readers of Patric’s Miles Franklin-winning novel Black Rock White City with its unnerving graffiti, will recognise a similarly unsettling technique in this one: enigmatic poems and shreds of Biblical texts that build on the sense of malevolence that pervades the novel.

In this excerpt, Katerina is recalling a conversation with her father:

Children hear ghost stories when they are little.  They tell the same ghost stories when they get older, to their own sons and daughters.  There are millions of incredible things in all the mythologies, and every religion still conjures angels and devils.  We spend years of our lives having trouble going to sleep because we worry about those demons and vampires, spectres and ghouls.  As time goes by, we find there are no monsters and no ghosts.  If we have trouble falling asleep at night, it’s not because we’re worried the fantastic will materialise but rather that reality will get harder and more brutal.  (p.225)

Katerina finds herself longing for a simple miracle, perhaps the revival of a vase of dead flowers, as a consolation that the fantastic wasn’t solely a thing of the imagination.  This reader was hoping for a miracle too.

Author: A.S. (Alec) Patric
Title: Atlantic Black
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2017
ISBN: 9780995409828
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from late October, the launch is at Readings in St Kilda on October 26th.


Responses

  1. I loved Murray Bail’s The Voyage and this one by A. S. Patric does sound intriguing. I am not at all familiar with the writer A. S. Patric.

    • He’d published short fictions before, but Black Rock White City (which won the Miles Franklin) was his debut novel so he’s kind of new in our literary firmament.

  2. Well, that was an unexpected direction for Patric to take. I was hoping for more first gen migrant lit, but given he’s such a marvellous writer, I’ll take what I can get.

  3. Sounds interesting. I did splurge on Black Rock, White City prior to leaving Sydney but haven’t gotten to it yet. It is actually scheduled for release in the US this fall (but with an ugly cover, if that matters). So Patric is gaining international attention. Maybe we’ll see this new title down the road…

    • I’ll ask Barry @transitlounge2 and see what I can find out…

      • Looks like the Transit Lounge releases come out in e-book. Paper releases probably require a publisher to pick up international rights. Oddly a large print edition of BRWC was published last year by a small Canadian firm. The world is full of mysteries!

        • That’s good. Though I’d always rather have a real book, an eBook is often the most cost effective way of getting an overseas title.

  4. I like books set on trains, ships, in hotels etc. so this sounds really good. Is there any reason it’s set in 1939? I would be interested in such a book with a modern person without access to gadgets & access to internet.☺

    I don’t think it’s available in UK though. When it is I hope they keep the cover.

    • Well, it’s not quite the same, but Robyn Mundy’s book Wildlight (https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/06/14/wildlight-by-robyn-mundy/) is about a teenage girl cut off from ‘civilisation’ when her parents go to work on an isolated island in Bass Strait. She is with her parents, so the risk-taking is not an issue in the same way but her sense of being cut off from her world in very well done indeed.

      • PS I forgot to answer about the date. I think the primary purpose of the date is to set this novel in a world without communications as we know them, but also to observe a vanished world from a class PoV as well as a world on the brink of grave danger though they don’t know yet how grave it will be. There’s barely a reference to the war, that knowledge is more a matter of what the reader already knows. But there is reference to Katerina’s father (an ambassador) warning them to stay where they are and not return to Europe, and Kornel, the brother, is a failed military cadet.
        The class distinctions are interesting. Even the most arrogant adolescent in Australia today wouldn’t order people about in the way that Katerina does. But I was also fascinated by the way Alec has got the experience of being aboard ship so right: there are not many left of us now who have travelled on ocean liners (as distinct from a cruise ship) and I wondered how he knew so much of what it is like. I think he’s too young to have migrated to Australia by ship and even if I’m wrong about that, travelling on an assisted passage in 3rd class is entirely different to what he portrays. My father’s employers always paid his passage so we had the same kind of experience as Katerina does.

  5. Delighted to have got my hands on a review copy of this. I haven’t read your review, but will do once I’ve read the book

    • I can’t wait to see what you think of it, I’m still shattered by it!

  6. […] reviewed Brian Castro’s Blindness and Rage; Kim Scott’s Taboo; Alec Patric’s Atlantic Black; Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come; and on my TBR jostling for first position are: […]

  7. Thanks for this review Lisa. Somehow this has slipped under my radar. I loved Black Rock White City and as wadholloway says above, this goes in quite a different direction. The fact that I too travelled to England by ship, as many of us did in the olden days, piques my interest even more.

    • It’s a brilliant book, I hope you enjoy it:)


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