Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2019

Act of Grace (2019), by Anna Krien

I know, I know, I’m hard to please…

I want stimulating books that tackle important contemporary issues…but…

I just don’t want them all in the one book.

There are three strands to this novel. This is the blurb

Iraqi aspiring pianist Nasim falls from favour with Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic son, triggering a perilous search for safety. In Australia, decades later, Gerry is in fear of his tyrannical father, Toohey, who has returned from the Iraq War bearing the physical and psychological scars of conflict. Meanwhile, Robbie is dealing with her own father’s dementia when the past enters the present.

These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant narrative of guilt and reckoning, trauma and survival. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and reconciliation, Act of Grace is a meditation on inheritance- the damage that one generation passes on to the next, and the potential for transformation.

And these are the issues that bubble up:

  • family violence
  • Stolen Generation dislocation
  • Islamophobia
  • discrimination against cross-dressers
  • prostitution
  • early onset dementia
  • racism from both sides towards Indigenous Australians with European heritage
  • PTSD after military tours of Iraq
  • refugees with real histories of torture and trauma but fake identities
  • Aboriginal children with foetal alcohol syndrome
  • the climbing of Uluru debate
  • Mexicans trying to cross the US border
  • brutal US prisons
  • the Aboriginal flag on West Gate Bridge debate

Alice Nelson (an author I really admire) at (what I could read of) her paywalled review at the ABR, has this to say:

A young Aboriginal girl wears an abaya because she wants to see how it feels to inhabit someone else’s experience, someone else’s history. An exiled Iraqi musician plays a piano in a shopping centre in suburban Melbourne. Native Americans protesting the construction of a pipeline on their traditional lands are shot at with water cannons and rubber bullets. Countries are lost, sacred sites invaded by careless tourists, lines on maps exclude and dispossess, sacrifices and compromises are made, and individual lives are disfigured by historical circumstance.

Leaping back and forth in time, spanning continents and cultures, and inhabiting shifting perspectives, Anna Krien’s first novel is a high-wire performance. With its vast historical rigging, epic scope, ethical complexity, and kaleidoscopic view, Act of Grace is enormously ambitious; everything rests on the execution and the stakes are high. The reader watches, breath held, as the novel unspools, but Krien is a skilled funambulist; her step is sure, and she does not fall.

Well, I don’t think so.  I have admired Krien’s journalism but I think this novel is a bit of a muddle; in places its disjointed structure is confusing for the reader; and there are just too many causes to form a coherent whole.  And I am increasingly uneasy with the constant depiction in fiction of women as the victims of appalling, gut-wrenching violence.

There’s an interview with Krien at the SMH here and for opinions different to mine, there is a review at Readings by Joe Rubbo and another by Sarah Holland-Batt at The Monthly. 

Update 25/1/20: You may be interested to read an interview with Sandy Cull who did the cover art.

Author: Anna Krien
Title: Act of Grace
Cover art by Sandy Cull
Publisher: Black Inc, 2019, 318 pages
ISBN: 9781863959551
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Act of Grace



  1. Yikes. Not for me for a number of reasons, not least the violence and the fact that there are *far* too many strands involed. It sounds potentially very messy…


    • If she’d toned it down a bit, it might have been ok, but it became like reading the headlines at The Guardian and some of it was a bit polemical.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a lot of issues for one book! Surely she can’t deal with any of them adequately. It sounds a lot like ‘ticked that box’, what’s next. What else strikes me about the list is how remote these issues are from my old white guy life. The closest I get is a cousin who climbed Uluru last month, and not Islamophobia but the constant racism of truckies towards ‘Indians’ – people from the sub-continent who take up long distance owner-driving.


    • I think that many of them are burning issues in the media, and often rightly so, but it’s a debut novelist’s mistake to put them all in one book, and although this is her debut work of fiction, she’s an experienced writer. I’m surprised the editor didn’t rein her in, but then again, I’ve linked to other reviewers who comment on how dexterously she’s managed to juggle them all.


  3. These do sound like a lot of issues for one book – I’m intrigued to see how she does it. Like you I’ve enjoyed her non-fiction works. However, with my pile of books to read, I’m unlikely to get to it.


  4. […] Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review […]


  5. […] Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review […]


  6. […] Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review […]


  7. […] Act of Grace, by Anna Krien […]


  8. […] Act of Grace by Anna Krien, Black Inc., see my review […]


  9. […] Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review […]


  10. […] Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review […]


  11. Wow, this is much to unpack in one read. I appreciate your interest in the cover-art as it is such a draw for me when finding a book. Not a good reason to choose a book, I know. It can be very misleading!


    • Hi Robyn, it’s nice to hear from you.
      Yes, I do try to acknowledge the work of the cover artists and designers. Without having any specialist knowledge of design, I know that book genre is usually signalled by the style of design, and like you, I use my acquired understanding of how that works to help me choose books.


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