Review: Preservation by Jock Serong, Text Publishing

James Arbuthnott

Preservation tells the story of three sea merchants from the Sydney Cove, marooned on Colonial Australia.
Review: Preservation by Jock Serong, Text Publishing

Jock Serong's Preservation published by Text Publishing.

Full of merchandise and booze, the Sydney Cove left port in 1797 from Calcutta. Its crew of five British and 37 Bengali sailors were shipwrecked off the coast of Victoria due to a storm. The 17 surviving sea merchants were then marooned again on Ninety Mile Beach. They walked for over two months and 600 kilometres north along the coast before a fisherman found them ‘crawling’ along the beach.

News of a Scottish merchant, a British tea merchant, and a young Bengali Lascar surviving the harsh Australian landscape spread quickly through the small colony of Sydney. The Scotsman had documented in his diary how they had dealt with unfamiliar territories, the ‘natives’, and each other. But their accounts are unclear. Clark, the Scotsman, was speared through both hands; the tea merchant’s nose was broken, and the Bengali didn’t speak English. Tasked with uncovering what happened during that two-month period, Lieutenant Joshua Grayling edges closer to the secrets these three survivors share but must also protect his wife’s health and safety.

Written as part of his PhD in creative writing, Australian author and surfer Jock Serong’s Preservation sheds fictional and historical light on the arcane shipwreck of the Sydney Cove in 1797. In it, he explores our beginnings as a convict nation, drawing contrasts between colonials and Aboriginals and the extent of how far human nature can go when threatened in an unfamiliar and dangerous territory. His historical attention is on the Colonials’ obsession with rum and commerce, their indifference and fear towards the Aboriginals who better understood the land, the plight of maritime travel and the Australian outback. Preservation tells little-known anecdotes about Australian history and acknowledges the Indigenous story is still today left mostly untold.

‘Perhaps all of this is history, and none of it’ said Serong about Clark’s original diary and his most recent book by Text Publishing. He consulted First Nation people and read fiction and history about the era and location to situate his main characters in the juvenile cultural melting pot of Indians, British and Aboriginals in colonial Australia in 1797. But it’s still un-risky in its content. Apart from a few savage, gory scenes, it’s no To Kill A Mockingbird when it describes racism and it’s no Lord of the Flies when it explores the depths of Caucasian culture when outside of its comfort zone.

And besides his atmospheric, comprehensible prose, Serong’s Preservation reads more like a fine script for an ABC drama than contemporary literature. It’s also predominantly about white men – although the storyline deservedly couldn’t have gone far without its minority-status characters.

Serong’s Quota won the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. His two other novels, The Rules of Backyard Cricket and On the Java Ridge, were also shortlisted for awards. He now writes features for the Great Ocean Quarterly.

3 ½ stars ★★★☆
Preservation
By Jock Serong

Extent: 368pp
Format: Paperback
Text publication date: 29 October 2018
ISBN: 9781925773125
AU Price: $29.99
NZ Price: $37.00
Categories: Historical Fiction
Fiction: Crime & Thriller
Australian
Release date: 29 October 2018
Text Publishing

About the author

James Arbuthnott is a Melbourne journalist and book reviewer at ArtsHub Australia. Twitter: @we_forgot