After his novel Black Rock, White City won the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, all eyes were on A.S. Patric. His win was something of a coup for small presses in Australia, and a first Miles Franklin win for publishing house Transit Lounge. Patric had been up against four extremely powerful novels, all written by Australian women, including Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which was the favourite to win. His follow up novel, Atlantic Black, which was realised just two years after he took out Australia’s richest and most prestigious literary award, was met with excitement and expectation.
It is the story of Katerina, a young woman and the daughter of an ambassador. She and her mother, Anne, are crossing the Atlantic Ocean towards France from Mexico on a cruise ship, ostensibly to attend the graduation of her brother Kornel from an officers training college in Paris. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day, New Year’s Eve in 1939, and shows Katerina’s increasing understanding of the reality of her family’s situation, and the pressure that this brings. In many ways, it is the story of the loss of Katerina’s innocence, and the shattering of the illusions that she has long held about the life she is living. On other levels, it is an allegory for the changes brought to the old way of life in Europe by the coming of the Second World War.
There is an atmosphere of unreality to this novel which suits its setting perfectly, both in the sense of time and space. The novel takes place in 1939, which was during what is called the ‘Phoney War’ – the first eight months of the war, during which there was only limited military action on the Western Front. For many, the war seemed like a temporary skirmish, and no one thought that the conflict would go on for another five years. Add to this the fact that the book takes place on a boat. The characters are pulled out of their homes, and the boat itself is in international waters. Everyone on board is stateless, and as such, people behave strangely and at times, inappropriately. After her mother is hospitalised aboard the ship, suffering from what seems to be a mental breakdown, Katerina is for the first time in the trip, without her mother’s supervision. She seems at first aimless, and then begins to fill her time doing things that her mother would not normally have approved of, such as talking to an officer on board the ship who has been tasked with guarding the body of a dead man, who seems to have been looking at pornography when he died. Her activities are increasingly liberal and at times it is as if Katerina is tempting fate. She is a magnet for unwanted attention, away from the hawk-like supervision of Anne. But freedom from the social mores of her class is not as liberating as Katerina might have wished, and without the structure of her previous life, Patric shows Katerina as a person whose identity seems to be in flux the more her assumptions about the world are challenged.
Atlantic Black is a beautifully written novel, written in a lush literary style. Many of the turns of phrase were worthy of rereading, and the imagery and atmosphere of the book are stunning. At times, it was a little hard to know what was real and what was imagined, leaving me as confused as Katerina. This is a novel which is driven by character and by language, rather than by a fast paced plot, and it may well be a contender for another Miles Franklin when the longlist is announced next month.
Atlantic Black is available now through Transit Lounge Publishing