Authors and Critics – some comments on critical responses to “Atlantic Black” in Australia, and what it takes to establish “a formidable Australian voice on the world stage”. J.W. Garton
Australian author A.S. Patrić’s novel Atlantic Black has not achieved the international critical recognition that it deserves since publication in 2017. I expected to read approving reviews in US and UK “quality” publications online, at least by now, but there doesn’t seem to be much on offer to date. Complimentary Australian reviews appeared soon after publication, although some of them rated it a lesser work than the “immigrant novel” Black Rock, White City, which won Patrić the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2016. Other reviews were quite negative.
Atlantic Black creates a world of its own on an ocean liner travelling the Atlantic on the last day of 1938. The central characters are a Russian diplomatic family caught up in the deadly dramas of Stalinist Russia’s internal politics. The protaganist is the seventeen year old daughter in that family, called Katerina. This setting is a challenging choice for a contemporary Australian novelist, not least in the sense that it can be categorized as historical fiction, which seems to me an inadequate label for a novel like Atlantic Black. However, on its own merits, it is wonderfully successful, a poetic account of a psychological drama at a tipping point in history.
It is interesting to contrast critical responses to the writing style of the novel. For example, a review by Luke Thomas (1) says: “A.S. Patrić has established himself as a formidable Australian voice on the world stage, capable of delivering a powerful and evocative novel for an international audience. Each sentence is a Molotov cocktail of meaning and spirit, and the trials Katerina faces are as emotionally draining for the reader as they are for her.”
Or this, from Lisa Hill (2):
“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.”
On the other hand, negative critical reviews about Atlantic Black include Adam Rivett (3) who accuses Patrić of “alternating between a kind of flatly functional description and an overworked rhetoric,” and of “overwritten” dialogue. For Rivett, it seems to be the case that Atlantic Black is confined by its membership of the literary historical fiction genre. He is scathing about historical errors, and notes that “… this desire to frame the novel with period-specific references leads at other times to some clumsy writing.”
And Owen Richardson ends his review (4) of Atlantic Black with some finely wrought ambivalence:
“The hallucinatory atmosphere is compelling, and no one could accuse the book of being predictable, but the question remains whether Patrić has managed quite to justify his created world in its own terms. For all its intensity, there seemed to be something willed and artificial about it all, unlike the earlier novel [Black Rock, White City] where the atmosphere and images seemed genuinely like emanations from (political and social) subconscious.”
These doubts recur in other reviews. It is as though A.S. Patrić has been too ambitious in writing an Australian novel – a novel written by an Australian – about foreigners on a foreign ship on a foreign ocean, with not an Australian in sight, written in poetic language on universal themes. In Atlantic Black he has certainly strayed well beyond the boundaries of the “multicultural novel” (5) compared to his award-winning Black Rock, White City, which Owen Richardson describes as “dealing with Yugoslavian emigres in John Howard’s Australia and the legacy of war in a new country.” No doubt a “multicultural novel” is a better bet when it comes to favourable reviews and success in sales, and for that matter, winning literary prizes. Richardson is certainly right to say that “the world of this novel is not quite our world,” but “turns literal, chronicled politics and history into symbols and mysteries…” Obviously what is important is how the critics react to that vision.
One thing that stands out in the creation or destruction of the reputation of literary novels in English from outside the UK and the US is the need for support from established literary critics – especially in the UK and USA. This situation is of course merely a facet of soft political power, as reflected in global markets. To my mind Atlantic Black is superior in literary terms to a great many other novels published in the UK and USA in recent years, some of them to great acclaim.
Patrić, A.S. Atlantic Black. Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2017. ISBN: 97809954409
(1) Luke Thomas. “A Review of A.S. Patrić’s Atlantic Black”. Westerly Magazine. https://westerlymag.com.au/a-review-of-a-s-patrics-atlantic-black/
(2) Lisa Hill. “Atlantic Black, by A. S. Patric.” ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, October 8, 2017. https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/10/08/atlantic-black-by-a-s-patric/
(3) Adam Rivett. “A.S. Patrić’s Atlantic Black and the challenges of historical fiction.” The Monthly. https://www.themonthly.com.au/blog/adamrivett/2017/15/2017/1513325679/patri-s-atlantic- black-and-challenges-historical-fiction
(4) Owen Richardson. “Disconcerting encounters in a world that was all at sea.” The Age, Melbourne, Australia, 23 December 2017.
(5) Susie Thomas, ‘Zadie Smith’s False Teeth: The Marketing of Multiculturalism’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2006/thomas.html