Preservation

Jock Serong

Preservation
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Preservation

Jock Serong

Preservation, based on the true story of the wreck of the Sydney Cove, sees master storyteller Jock Serong turn his talents to historical narrative.

On a beach not far from the isolated settlement of Sydney in 1797, a fishing boat picks up three shipwreck survivors, distressed and terribly injured. They have walked hundreds of miles across a landscape whose features-and inhabitants-they have no way of comprehending. They have lost fourteen companions along the way. Their accounts of the ordeal are evasive.

It is Lieutenant Joshua Grayling’s task to investigate the story. He comes to realise that those fourteen deaths were contrived by one calculating mind and, as the full horror of the men’s journey emerges, he begins to wonder whether the ruthless killer poses a danger to his own family.

Review

A little-known (though maybe soon-to-be-well-known) historical event forms the basis for Jock Serong’s latest novel, Preservation.

Using the 1797 shipwreck of the Sydney Cove off the coast of Preservation Island in Bass Strait as a starting point, Serong imagines what might have happened during the trek survivors made from what we now call Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria to the frontier town of Sydney. Seventeen men began the walk; only three were found, barely alive, just south of Sydney town. What happened to the other fourteen? The group was made up of British merchant seamen set to make their fortune in the infant colony, and Bengali lascars who had joined the journey in Calcutta, where the ship set sail. What happened when the walkers encountered Indigenous peoples along the way? And did the party shrink by virtue of misfortune, or by design?

Preservation is a skilful and, most importantly, very entertaining work of imagination, full of tension and menace, that keeps the reader sweating over what will become of the protagonists until the very end. A more odious villain than the imposter tea merchant, Figge, could hardly be imagined: he and another unreliable survivor hinder attempts by officials in Sydney to understand exactly what happened. Serong uses all his crime-writing tricks of the trade in this literary novel, and it’s hugely effective. This is the kind of historical fiction writing that makes the reader wonder where the ‘real’ past ends and invention begins – which is just the way Serong wants it to be. Underpinning this story is an accomplished writer’s voice that queries what Western/settler histories of Australia are really made of, tells of the chaos and devastation caused by colonisation, and speaks in dialogue with the Indigenous knowledges and histories that are at last becoming widely acknowledged.


Alison Huber is the head book buyer at Readings.

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