ACT OF GRACE.
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
Toohey, a veteran of three tours of Iraq, has brought more home with him this time than just the multiple pieces of shrapnel that are still lodged in his neck from a suicide bomber.
In Iraq Toohey shot at a car whose driver never slowed down after being signalled to do so. The bullet hit and killed a baby. The characters that the narrative revolves around are all affected by that single bullet and it leads to the novel’s title.
An “act of grace” is a cash payment to civilians killed or injured by the Commonwealth of Australia. The Commonwealth, in paying the civilian or members of their family, bears responsibility for the loss.
Toohey is crippled by PTSD. He cannot hold down a job and is prone to anger and violence, finding it almost impossible to return to normal civilian life after his third time in Iraq. The shrapnel in his neck is the least of his problems. It is the mental damage he has suffered that is the real danger to not just himself, but his wife and son. His violence and anger eventually driving them both from his life.
Robbie is a young teenager who is torn between two cultures. Her father, Danny, who is suffering from early dementia, is aboriginal, while her mother, Claire is white. Danny was one of the Stolen Generation and this fact has only added to Robbie’s anguish and search for cultural identity.
Robbie’s sense of not belonging even extends to her family. Her brother, Otis, looks like their mother, his skin lighter, and Robbie feels that her father loved her brother more because of this. The only thing that Robbie has inherited from her father is her deep hatred of “the system”. Hating it while not understanding why. She is drowning in feelings of worthlessness, clinging desperately to shards of self-respect. She looks for ways to numb the pain, she starts chroming with her friend at school. With her father’s dementia worsening slowly, Robbie’s relationship with her mother cannot take the strain and Robbie turns to a life of drugs and petty crime not just to escape, but to “stick it” to the system.
Nasim is a young girl in Iraq who belongs to one of the lucky families favoured by Saddam Hussein. Her mother a celebrated poet, and a woman who loves her country, starts helping Saddam with his poetry. Nasim notices that each time her mother returns from her sessions with Saddam she grows angrier. Nasim meets Uday, Saddam’s son, while riding Saddam’s prized horses. She dreams of becoming a princess, and her dreams are strengthened when Uday gifts her Husam, her favourite horse. However, once this is done, she is no longer invited to Saddam’s stables to ride. Three months later her father is arrested and charged with speaking against the regime. Six months later he returns with three fingers missing. When one of her mother’s best friends writes a poem against Saddam her parents are killed. Nasim too young to understand what has happened is forced into a life of slavery and prostitution. When the Americans invade and one of the other prostitutes is killed Nasim steals her passport and identity and flees Iraq, escaping to Australia as a refugee.
The separate narratives will eventually intertwine, and join like separate threads of string, with characters moving from their own narrative into another. And it is not just about the central characters themselves, but their families and how they are all affected. Each of the characters, and family, face problems, cultural, physical, mental. There is violence in all three families. And while their problems differ, sometimes dramatically, they all have one problem in common and that is the conflict of identity.
Toohey feels he no longer belongs to civilian life. He has lost his identity as a soldier, but cannot seem to make the transition back to a life of peace, a life without conflict, without the constant threat of danger. He confronts his demons with anger and violence. Alienating himself from his wife and son. His wife leaving him and Gerry, his son, moving to America.
Robbie is lost, searching for her true identity. She has been brought up in a non-indigenous Australian culture. But as she finds out more about her father and the Stolen Generation. She realises that she does have a home, an identity within the indigenous community, and heritage to claim.
Nasim knows where her identity belongs, but she has been displaced and feels lost in an alien culture that she does not understand.
This brings us to another theme explored by this novel. The difference of cultures. Not just between countries, but within countries, and how these cultures affect individual identity. How an individual identifies another countries culture, sometimes mistakenly. Gerry, since a young boy at school has identified American culture with cowboys after becoming obsessed with the cowboy tour brochures that his teacher showed him in class. When he does travel to America, escaping his father, he finds that his conception of this culture is far from reality. Nazim thinks that things in Australia will be perfect, and yet upon arriving realises she does not understand the culture at all.
It makes you stop and think of the many and varied cultures that exist on this planet and our general lack of knowledge and tolerance of cultures that are not our own. In the beginning of the novel Toohey is telling of how they were given instructions on how to treat and respect Iraqi culture. He laughs at the part where they are told not to praise something, say an object, too much, or the Iraqi civilian will feel obliged to gift him the object. Instead of respecting this culture the soldiers take advantage of it, scoring free gifts.
This is Anna’s fictional debut and she has written a wonderful novel. 4 Stars.
Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sport, which won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, Into theWoods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests and Us and Them: On the importance of animals (Quarterly Essay 45). Anna’s work has been published in the Monthly, the Age, the Big Issue, The Best Australian Essays, Griffith REVIEW, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, Colors, Frankie and Dazed & Confused.
There is a link here to a podcast with Anna on The Garret website. If you enjoyed the book it's a wonderful podcast. - https://thegarretpodcast.com/anna-krien/