Krien, Anna. Act of Grace. Carlton: Black Inc. Books, 2019. RRP $32.99. 336pp. ISBN: 9781863959551
At the very heart of a good story is conflict, and in Anna Krien’s latest novel Act of Grace, we find that conflict is at the very heart of what it is to be human.
This is Krien’s third novel, and it is a beautiful and thought-provoking book that weaves around the lives of three families in Perth, Melbourne and Iraq. Each is dealing with their own kind of conflict on an individual and familial level, and attempting to live their lives in the face of forces, both national and international, that are bigger than they are.
Act of Grace is admirable in its complexity; every line develops, unfurls and explicates the narrative and the characters living it, which makes it utterly unputdownable.
Conflict is explored on every level, and it is through the experiences of the characters caught up in it that Krien explores what it is to be human in today’s world. Each family in the narrative has one character that stands out as the catalyst or focal point through which these tensions are explored.
In Perth we are introduced to Gerry, the young son of Iraq war veteran Toohey, who has been stood down from service after shooting an innocent civilian. Toohey jumps from one job to the next, is violent to his wife and son and finds the return home from war leaves him dissatisfied with what he has to return to. The war has changed him and brought about his own, individual, internal conflict. When he lands at the airport, his response to seeing his wife, Jean, and son waiting for him highlights the turmoil inside him.
The old veteran had been right: it was embarrassing how much he had thought about her. But now, seeing her needy smile, tight floral top and denim skirt, Toohey did something strange. He pretended not to see them … he could tell her that he had forgotten something, that he had to return to customs, that he’d be back in a sec, and keep going, organise a ticket, get on a plane, go, go, go. (39)
Toohey’s experience of conflict is fight or flight. The war is also within him in his uncertainty about whether he can be satisfied with civilian life after experiencing the stress and strain of fighting. At home he picks fights with Jean and her sister, revelling in the conflict that it creates.
As well as individual conflict, Act of Grace looks at this theme on a familial level. In Perth, there’s physical conflict in Toohey’s violence towards Gerry and his animosity towards his wife. In Melbourne, there’s emotional conflict in the form of Robbie, a teenager when we first meet her, who is watching her father Danny mentally deteriorate due to early onset dementia.
Robbie’s relationship with her mother, Bridget, suffers when Bridget starts looking for a new partner once Danny is sent into a home; so much so that it escalates to physical violence and drives a wedge between Robbie, Bridget and Robbie’s little brother Otis.
After that, a silence crept out over the three of them; a distance grew that they couldn’t fix. Even after Robbie and Bridget talked it out, there was still something between them, a wall that kept growing. (74)
There is already a tension within the family that has been predetermined by Australian society. Danny is an Indigenous man and Bridget is a white Australian. Robbie has both of these cultures in her as part of her identity, and as a result struggles to find her place in both her family and the world as a result of this dichotomy. Robbie represents Australia as a nation, separated into two identities that exist together but are constantly in conflict with each other.
In Iraq, the conflict in Nasim’s family comes as a result of them being subject to tensions that affect their entire society. When Nasim falls into favour with Saddam Hussein, he takes her to his home and lets her ride his horses, which is a dream come true for her as a child. But her closeness to Saddam causes fear and stress in her family, who are at the mercy of the dictator and his regime.
‘I love them all, but I love Husam the best,’ Nasim would say breathlessly, and to her mother, ‘Which one do you like the best?’
Once her mother had snapped, ‘None of them, none,’ and her father put his hand on her knee, jerking his chin at the driver. Her mother frowned and stared out the window again. Confused, Nasim also fell silent.’ (91)
Nasim later comes to understand why Saddam’s attention creates such tension in her family and realises as she grows up that there is nothing she can do to relieve it.
In Act of Grace, discord in the individual seeps out into the nucleus of the family and creates tension, which echoes the conflicts to which each family is subject to on a national or international context. Toohey and Gerry’s conflict echoes that of their country which is at war with another. Robbie’s conflict over her identity due to her Indigenous heritage symbolises Australia’s mixed identity as an Indigenous and non-Indigenous country, divided by racism and the prejudice. Nasim’s love of horses and innocent admiration of Saddam conflicts with her identity as part of an artistic, free-speaking family, which in turn mirrors the wider existence of the Iraqi people, now constantly battling each other under his brutal regime.
But despite the discord, Krien shows that harmony can and does exist, and that it is in finding this peace that the true meaning of humanity can be understood. Through art, poetry, music, love, travel, exploration and conversation these characters grow and are reconciled in their own ways, with themselves, with their families and with the societies that they belong to.
Act of Grace is a thrilling read. It’s a novel that delves into the deepest questions of what it is to be human and expertly weaves hope, love, life and sorrow together in an epic of contemporary life.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. Previously Arts and Events Editor of Scoop Events, she now works in the marketing team at Fremantle Press.