The Burning Island

Jock Serong

The Burning Island
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The Burning Island

Jock Serong

Eliza Grayling, born in Sydney when the colony itself was still an infant, has lived there all her thirty-two years. Too tall, too stern - too old, now - for marriage, she lives by herself, looking in on her reclusive father in case he has injured himself while drunk. There is a shadow in his past, she knows. Something obsessive. Something to do with a man who bested him thirty-three years ago.

Then Srinivas, another figure from that dark past, offers Joshua Grayling the chance for a reckoning with his nemesis. Eliza is horrified. The plan entails a sea voyage far to the south and an uncertain, possibly violent, outcome. Out of the question for an elderly man-insanity for a helpless drunkard who also happens to be blind.

Unable to dissuade her father from his mad quest, Eliza begins to understand she may be forced to go with him. Then she sees the ship they will be sailing on. And in that instant, the voyage of the Moonbird becomes Eliza’s mission too.    

Review

You may have read Jock Serong’s gripping 2018 novel, Preservation, based on real events surrounding a shipwreck’s survivors and their doomed walk along the south east coast of Australia to Sydney in the late 1790s. If you did, you will be thrilled to hear that Serong takes up the story thirty years later in his latest novel, The Burning Island. If you didn’t, the first few chapters artfully distil the key points of the earlier book to get every reader up to speed.

This story is told from the point of view of Eliza Grayling, the daughter of Lieutenant Joshua Grayling – the man whose investigation tried to establish why only three of the seventeen walkers who survived the shipwreck made it to Sydney. We discover that the Lieutenant has become a shadow of his former self, haunted by the demons of the past, and deep in the grip of the alcoholism that has blinded him. When the opportunity arises to make peace with at least one of those demons, Eliza finds herself joining her father on a seafaring mission of their own, investigating another shipwreck and the whereabouts of its cargo. This voyage takes them to Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, and is also inspired by actual events and figures.

Serong tells a gripping tale, a literary historical thriller with twists and turns aplenty, and the same menacing undercurrent perfected in Preservation. He is a master of character drama, and his rich storytelling is populated with many vivid personalities: some are resisting and surviving the brutality of Australia’s invasion; others are exploiting and revelling in it; others still are set adrift in its turbulence. There is also the story’s narrator, a single white woman born in the colony, now well into her thirties and in the service of her father, loyal to him with unshakeable daughterly love, but who privately hopes for another life. These competing experiences are carefully rendered, charging this novel with emotion.


Alison Huber is the head book buyer at Readings.

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