On the Java Ridge
The Java Ridge is a boat ferrying Australian surf tourists from Bali to the killer breaks found off remote Indonesian islands to the south. Stand-in captain Isi Natoli is at the helm, while her partner, Joel, is in Perth, trying to save the business. As they head for the tiny island of Dana, another boat is en route from Sulawesi. It is the Takalar, and contains dozens of refugees seeking asylum in Australia. They have paid people smugglers, who have taken their coin even though they know the Australian government has just announced a new policy in which all responsibility for assisting boats in distress has been disavowed.
Meanwhile in Canberra, the federal Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, has one week to enforce this uncompromising credo and not stuff up before the election. The hardline Liberal regime expects another term in office, and the prime minister is cracking down hard on attacks of conscience.
Cue a fateful meeting of the boats in a storm, and an unfolding disaster that threatens to derail the election. Jock Serong, a Victorian lawyer and surfer, has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence as an author, this being his third novel in as many years. His experience on the ocean is evident in several bravura passages, such as the description of the refugee boat capsizing, the desperate rescue attempt by Natoli and her crew, and gut-churning scenes of grisly triage performed on the beach.
This promising conceit comes badly unstuck in the halls of power. Serong’s Canberra is populated by loathsome Liberal caricatures. The prime minister – a foul-mouthed Nazi psychopath – is never named, but is clearly a twisted Abbott simulacrum. A left-wing fantasy of a Liberal government undone by their inhumane asylum seeker policy may be a clever literary parlour trick, but it’s preaching to the choir. The parodic politicians are risible and the overstated righteous indignation undermines the message. A commercial thriller turns out to be an uneasy and awkward forum for a lecture on the plight of asylum seekers. The sections from the point of view of nine-year-old Afghani refugee Roya raise a whole other set of issues in a post-appropriation climate.
Serong’s oddly confected third novel proves strong on the water, but founders on land and makes a poor fist of its politics. As one of the surfers says late on, “I just get the shits when people start preaching at me.” Exactly. JD
Text, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 29, 2017 as "Jock Serong, On the Java Ridge". Subscribe here.