The Sydney Cove has the mixed distinction of being among the first ships wrecked on Australia’s east coast; it was on its way from Calcutta to Port Jackson in 1797 when it wrecked on an island – now called Preservation Island – in Bass Strait. Seventeen men survived and set off in the ship’s longboat to Port Jackson, on the way to which they wrecked again, this time on the mainland, leaving them few choices but to walk the 600-plus kilometres to Sydney from Ninety Mile Beach. Three survivors – a British merchant, a Scottish merchant and one Indian lascar – made it to Sydney, where, in this fourth novel by Jock Serong, those able to communicate are interrogated by Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, who is tasked with solving the many mysteries their bodies bear. One of them has a broken nose. Another has been speared through both hands.
We toggle between scenes of the interrogation, scenes of colonial life, and a chronological account of that deadly walk from the perspective of the non-English-speaking Bengali sailor, a nice conceit of point of view; he is very present in the scenes, but there’s a thick tension from the fact he knows more than we do, and we know more than the other characters. Late in the book, our identification with this voice, coupled with its wider inaccessibility, provides some of the most harrowing passages. Serong has imagined the account using what he calls in an author’s note “the version of that story that passes as ‘history’ ”, which comes from a single person’s diary, which itself has been excerpted, reproduced or paraphrased in a newspaper.
In this historical fiction, you won’t be surprised that Sydney people don’t know much about what happens out there in Australia, that non-white people get the short end of the stick, be they Indigenous or otherwise, and that some characters forgo responsible survival behaviour for the greed and self-interest that underpins settlement life. One of the survivors is a respectable villain, who can be theatrical in dialogue – “Do not attempt to toy with me. I am not a man you’d toy with” – but has a convincingly, disturbingly rotten core. Unfortunately, Grayling’s wife is ill and may be in need of help that can only be provided by this figure, which draws a tense bow over the ostensibly safe Sydney proceedings. As our narrator says, “We had our answer now: the bush hid its monsters, but they were not the kind we expected.” CR
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Jock Serong, Preservation ". Subscribe here.