Book Review: Grind, by Edward Vukovic

In the midst of a biting Melbourne winter, the paths a five strangers cross in unexpected places, often over a cup of their favourite, bitter beverage.

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Grind is an engrossing Australian novel that expertly weaves together the stories of a suite of intriguing characters, united by the steaming elixir that punctuates their dreary days: coffee.

In the midst of a biting Melbourne winter, the paths a fortune-telling migrant, a dissatisfied real estate agent, a pub-owning amateur poet, a mysterious vagrant and a superstitious school girl cross in unexpected places, often over a cup of their favourite, bitter beverage. Each of them is looking for meaning, wondering what’s next, and navigating complex emotions about their past.

Through the characters’ coffee rituals, occasional interactions with each other and shared sense of grief over past hurts and present injustices, this motley crew are fixated by the bleak futures foretold in their haunting visions and dreams.

While they are all inherently connected, Vukovic successfully establishes individual voices for each character, using language and imagery that reflects their various backgrounds and personalities. Both male and female voices are convincing, which can be challenging to achieve.

Detailed descriptions of their daily coffee-making routines are used to highlight their cultural and socio-economic differences. One hand-crafts a delicately spiced home brew, another swears by his gritty Nescafé. There are also barista-made cappuccinos and, on one occasion, convenience store swill.

Although Melbourne is often associated with coffee snobbery, these varied choices are pleasantly portrayed without judgement. They are expressions of each individual, embedded in their history and central to their identity.

Vukovic’s tender, poetic descriptions of his characters’ daily lives and love of coffee convey a profound fondness for Melbourne’s varied social landscape. He doesn’t shy away from depictions of poverty and struggle. Indeed, all of his characters are struggling in some way. Unemployment and abuse of power are particularly common threads.

It is rare to find a novel that brings disparate characters into each others’ lives without seeming self-consciousness, but Vukovic achieves this effortlessly. Their interactions are fleeting and unexpected, leaving the reader wondering whether and how a more active relationship will be established.

Grind is satisfyingly slow moving, not giving much away early on. It is not a page turner in the traditional sense – there is not enough action or suspense. However, it builds at a pace that makes you want to continue on, if only to find out what each character’s next step is.

Much in the story is intentionally obscured, creating a sense of mystery that begs to be resolved. The truth is revealed to the reader almost as it is revealed to the characters themselves. Even the time period in which the book is set takes a while to work out, as the experiences of the first character featured, Ziva, are somewhat timeless, fitting just as believably into 1950 as 2018.

Vukovic appears to be particularly interested in the up-hill battles and heartbreaks of the migrant experience, explored through the stories of Ziva and the homeless Michel, who both face reinvention and instability in a foreign land with minimal social support.

Stereotypical aspects of “Aussie” culture are also critiqued; Isaac, the undiscovered poet who owns the pub, turns the macho publican image on its head and, while much of the plot takes place around beer, there is a sadness and isolation in these scenes that contrast against the quiet enjoyment of coffee.

Grind is an absorbing, thought provoking read. It has a melancholic tone, but maintains a sense of hope and wonder and reflects a love of Melbourne and its characters.

Reviewed by Sarah Judd-Lam

Rating out of 10: 9

Distributed by: Amazon Australia
Released: February 2016
RRP: $42.47 paperback, $1.29 eBook

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