Patrić, A.S. Atlantic Black. Melbourne, Australia: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2017. RRP: $29.99, 288pp. ISBN: 97809954409828
To put down Atlantic Black is to break away from the pull of a rip current. Drawn together by macabre symbolic content, technical consistency, and evocative imagery, A.S. Patrić’s Atlantic Black is a gripping and harrowing novel about darkness and decay that stirs in one’s mind long after the last page.
Across the day and night of New Year’s Eve 1939, Katerina Klova, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Russian ambassador, navigates the decks of transatlantic ocean liner RMS Aquitania in the wake of her mother’s psychotic breakdown. Already a winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary award, A.S Patrić has set his sights away from Australia and to the human condition more broadly. What does it mean to live in a world so capable of potent evil? How does one find one’s place and identity in an increasingly fractured society?
Patrić acclimatises his audience to the atmosphere of the novel with a foreboding scene of Katerina wandering the Aquitania’s sun deck and speaking with a German man after deterring him from suicide. Soon after, the novel’s pace is accelerated with deliberative skill. The images are brutal and memorable, often appearing in conversation shared by or overheard from other passengers, such as that of the whale whose ‘flesh was pockmarked from [the] attacks’ of ‘gulls [that] would land on her back to peck out meat for their breakfast.’ (4)
Although never approximating the substance of horror, Patrić’s representations of decay surface in tangible, relatable, and even Lovecraftian ways. For instance, in dealing with her mother’s psychosis, Katerina experiences pure dread in the form of a fever dream:
‘Emerging from the gloom the circles were revealed to be the octopus’s suckers, all getting closer, until her bubble of air slipped away from Aquitania’s inverted deck and she awoke blinking away the black water of the Atlantic.’ (29)
Atlantic Black is a novel of a world fallen into insecurity; of vagaries, and morbid human potential; of one girl’s exhausting and tortuous grapple with fate. The story is constructed from an arrangement of Katerina’s experience on the deck, as well as her recollections and those of others, which combine to form a flowing story. Although the narrative meanders, Patrić maintains cohesion throughout the novel by using a strong voice underpinned by a consistent tone.
To illustrate Patrić’s use of tone, we can look to the passage which allegorises the uncertainty of the world and the insignificance of humanity to the great Atlantic. Patrić writes:
‘The Atlantic seemed to be a definite shape on a map, a certain place, but it was just a word, an abracadabra denoting an actuality so vast it was beyond imagination and deep beyond reckoning even with the most advanced scientific tools.’ (22)
The Atlantic is a representation of the suffocating pressure closing in from all sides, crushing the individual. From a blog post written in July 2014, Patrić’s intention for this symbol is clarified: ‘An ocean liner can seem a lovely, nostalgic place to set a story, yet it might also be seen as a moving prison.’ (a.s.patric.Ink)
Set in the late 1930s, Atlantic Black engages with the mood of Modernism but is mediated by a contemporary style: it is a novel which humanises the Nietzschean society and its preoccupation with the world’s impersonality. Katerina’s mother, Anne, is terrorised by visions of monsters from the sea. Katerina herself is terrorised by the monsters of human nature. Bleeding from the bite of a dog, Katerina remarks that ‘Pain seems a part of everything. Painless solutions don’t seem to work.’ (135) Throughout the novel, even passages that begin light-heartedly transition into exemplars of decay and destruction.
A notable motif that appears throughout Atlantic Black, that of balance and zero-sum moments, consolidates the mood of emptiness and isolation. Patrić seeks to explore, as he writes, ‘Isolation amid the crush of people aboard an ocean liner—isolation in every frame of every moment.’ (14) Katerina says ‘There’s a balance in every moment of feeling disgust and pleasure’ (17). Later, she remarks upon ‘the image of Antal Szerb’, the ‘author picture on the back cover’ of a book her brother gave her, noting that it ‘is as though this one person in this one photo has been caught in a moment where everything—future and past, hopes and fears, life and death—found a precise balance’ (36). When she then looks at herself in the mirror she sees ‘her expression at zero’ (39). Through this recurring emptiness, in moments where there is no emotional subject inside a material object, Atlantic Black is not only a voyage into darkness but a tender insight into fear and the uncanny.
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.
Patrić, A.S. Atlantic Black. Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2017.
Patrić, A.S. ‘Atlantic Black’. a.s.patric.Ink. Blogspot, 26 July 2014, http://aspatricink.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/atlantic-black.html. Accessed 30 November 2017.
Luke Thomas is an undergraduate student at the University of Western Australia and a former intern with Westerly Magazine.