Act of Grace by Anna Krien
Anna Krien will be known to readers as the author of two works of narrative nonfiction, Into the Woods and Night Games – both important explorations into Australian life and culture. In her ambitious debut novel, Act of Grace, Krien has a delivered a meditation on Australia that reads like a thriller.
The ‘act of grace’ Krien references in her title is a discretionary payment made by the Australian military to a civilian who’s suffered as a result of its actions; in this book, a payment made to the mother of a baby killed by an Australian soldier in Iraq. The inherent contradictions of this term echo throughout this story, connecting the lives of its disparate characters.
There’s Toohey, an Iraq War veteran who’s served three tours, and is scarred by trauma, the bones of a suicide bomber still lodged in his neck. His son, Gerry, is trying to find his own identity in the wake of his father’s violent past. Robbie is a young Indigenous woman whose father, Danny, a child of the Stolen Generations, is battling dementia. While Danny’s past is slipping away from him, Robbie is trying to forge her future. In Iraq, Nasim, a young aspiring pianist, struggles to form a new life in the wake of devastation caused by the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein.
The book ricochets between these characters as their lives become more entwined. The writing is clipped, assured and unflinching. Krien has a knack for building images in the reader’s mind. Be warned: some of the scenes may make you recoil from their brutality.
Krien is holding up a mirror and reflecting some of Australia’s darkest aspects: our involvement in Iraq, our appalling treatment of this land’s First Peoples, and the degradation of our environment. Act of Grace implores us to acknowledge the demons of our past – only then can we move forward.