Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Act of Grace is a brilliant novel, where the characters’ stories intertwine with breath-taking ease, but without relying heavily on coincidence. In one case, Toohey goes into a little café where Nasim is working. She is the mother of the baby he unintentionally shot dead in Iraq. Considering the numerous cafés in Melbourne, this is truly remarkable. At another stage, two characters find they are living next door to each other.
The suspense, finely drawn characters and vivid writing contribute to a riveting read.
The author has beautifully illumined inheritance, survival, adapting to a foreign society, depletion of the planet’s resources, the lives of a marginalised indigenous people and the power of bureaucracies. This could be overwhelming – to address such a range of issues, but Anna Krien handles this as impressively as a conductor of an orchestra.
Toohey, his wife Jean and son, Gerry begin this complex narrative. Toohey is home from Iraq, having been discharged by an Act of Grace. He had shot a woman but killed her baby. He returns to Melbourne then the family leaves and goes into the country. Finance is a challenge, so he desperately takes on a job in a chicken farm. This happens in just a few pages, but there are horrific descriptions. A mouse plague shocks them all. He never screamed in Iraq but in this chicken shed……Jean shrieks too and he thinks, “the war in Iraq would have been peaceful if it weren’t for the screaming.”
Such chilling writing becomes even more tense and gripping. There is an incident in the sandpit at the CHEAP BURGERS roadhouse that is quietly menacing.
Life for a family in Baghdad is in stark contrast to that of Toohey’s. The shadow of Saddam Hussein looms with horrific menace. In addition, the violent excesses of Uday, his spoiled son affect Nasim and her parents. Gradually the regime erodes the once happy lives of her family. Her father, who plays the oud, is tortured and three fingers are removed. His ability to play his beloved music now impossible. Uday woos Nasim with one of the Palace’s beautiful horses while she looks forward to the future as a talented pianist. Her dreams are shattered when she is kidnapped by Uday, vilely used and dispatched to a brothel, her spirit broken.
Nhour, her mother, who is aware of the perils of the regime, bears a hatred for Saddam and his actions. She is captured too, as an eminent poet voicing criticism of Iraqi life. Eventually she endures a lingering death. When her body is returned for burial, her tongue, symbol of “the voice “has been removed.
There is a terrible irony with the USA and its allies invading Iraq to free its people from Saddam’s tyranny. Is it an act of grace? It brings its own suffering, destruction and death from the bombs.
A complete contrast is Robbie, an outsider in the education and social system. Her family is poor and struggles to make a life. This is made more difficult by the early dementia of her father, Danny. He is the school janitor. Changes occur and Robbie battles not to be overwhelmed by it all. She descends into gratuitous violence and runs away in an attempt to escape the system.
The three separate stories touch each other in Melbourne, six years later. Nasim, now called Sabeen because of her passport, is working in a coffee shop in a lane. Toohey and Gerry enter. Drama ensues. She lives next door to Robbie who wants to assume the guise of a Muslim, to escape her current life and her recently learned aboriginality. She would like to wear an abaya.
Meanwhile Robbie joins some aborigines working at Uluru, supervising the return of rocks stolen from the sacred site. Her anger still bubbles and she is outraged by the people who choose to climb Uluru and passionately curses them.
Nasim (Sabeen) is desperate to leave the Iraqi regime under Saddam, which is followed by the US invasion and its horrors but the act of grace brings her to Melbourne. The plight of a refugee with a secret past is not the solution she would have wished. Her view of the city is unflattering. It is vastly different from the ancient culture of the Middle East. This Australian city is brash and repugnant to her.
Nasim discovers a friendly softer side to Robbie, and they boost their unhappy lives for each other.
Her experience does have a positive aspect. Spontaneous playing of the purple piano in the mall, is powerful and full of emotion. She has obtained a heart to her playing – which her mother had told her she lacked in her teenage years in Baghdad.
Gerry, now a young man, has suffered under the impact of living with a gentle, ineffectual mother who is overwhelmed by her husband’s mental distress. His unpredictable father is a challenge for Gerry. He is quietly compliant when still at school. His search for a better life is contained in the belief that the ideal man is a – cowboy! He goes to the USA and finds an America he never imagined.
Act of Grace is alive with its fine writing, the issues involved, the complex narrative depicting lives that are attempting to handle some of the most difficult questions that face us. It is a compelling read.
I loved this book.
336pp; Paperback $32.99. eBook 14.99