While it is true that many of the 20th century’s finest novels were written by journalists, it is also true that not all journalists write great novels. But for great writers such as Greene and Hemingway, the novel form proffered a powerful staging ground for the human complexities of global conflicts that were not always easily captured in column inches.
Now that the golden era of the foreign correspondent is over, it is perhaps unsurprising that recent breakout novels by Australian journalists, such as Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe and Jane Harper’s The Dry, have tended towards generic storytelling rather than geopolitics. And in the current climate of increased scepticism about who has the right to tell the stories of marginalised groups, there are few incentives for novelists to wade into the ethical quagmire of Australian foreign policy. For these reasons, journalist Anna Krien’s debut novel, Act of Grace (Black Inc.; $32.99) – which plunges headlong into the aftermath of the Iraq War – feels provocative and risky, but also refreshingly ambitious.
Krien is well known for her scrupulous long-form reportage, where she has covered subjects such as climate change, alcohol abuse in remote communities, and rape culture in football. Act of Grace refracts many of these interests through a cast of characters: there’s Toohey, a traumatised Iraq War vet prone to PTSD-induced violence; Robbie, the wayward artist daughter of a Stolen Generations survivor; Nasim, a resilient Iraqi refugee who survived Saddam Hussein’s purges and landed in Melbourne; and Gerry, Toohey’s son, who rebels against his father’s toxic masculinity by joining the activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Krien’s simultaneous evocation of so many hotbutton topics could have easily overwhelmed the novel’s focus, yet Act of Grace, if on the longer side, is mostly propulsive and energetic, vivified by jolts of shocking violence. Most compelling is Krien’s incisive character portraiture, which is marked by complex moral ambiguity. As the disparate storylines coalesce around an “act of grace” compensation payment to a woman whose infant was killed by Australian forces in Baghdad, Krien teases out her characters’ hypocrisy and complicity in the senseless cycle of violence and prejudice, leaving none unscathed. It transpires that Nasim has gained asylum using the alias of a woman she exploited during the last gasps of Hussein’s reign; Toohey, an erstwhile liberator of Iraq, left a “blossom of blood” in a mother’s arms in a brutal instant; Robbie blithely dons an abaya in an attempt to empathise with her neighbour Nasim, but is wilfully naive about what the garment represents to a woman who was once forced to wear it. All struggle to forge a sense of identity without demonising an “other” in the process.
The conditions that fomented the Iraq War – kneejerk retaliation, misplaced moral righteousness, stunted cross-cultural communication, and an entrenched “us and them” mentality – are all still apparent in its wake, Krien suggests. Act of Grace offers no answers, but asks all the right questions.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription