Serong’s lat­est book takes a new slant on the tra­di­tional crime novel


It’s a crime to be stuck in a par­tic­u­lar genre af­ter your first book, es­pe­cially when your sub­se­quent three nov­els all move away from it. Al­though most of Jock Serong’s books fea­ture crimes, they are ev­ery­day ones, com­mit­ted by in­di­vid­u­als, politi­cians, the me­dia, and colo­nial­ists on the make. Serong, a for­mer lawyer, won the Ned Kelly prize for best de­but crime novel in 2015 for his book Quota. It was fol­lowed by The Rules of Back­yard Cricket (2016), On the Java Ridge (2017) and newly re­leased Preser­va­tion.

The lat­est is set in 1797 and fol­lows a group mak­ing its way from the wreck of the trad­ing ship Syd­ney Cove on what is now Preser­va­tion Is­land, part of the Furneaux Group, in a bid to get to the new set­tle­ment at Syd­ney. Based on a true story, Serong has filled in the his­tor­i­cal record with his own mus­ings.

An in­ter­est­ing no­tion in On the Java Ridge and Preser­va­tion is that of bound­aries and borders and where they are drawn. In the case of the ocean, there is noth­ing ob­vi­ous to show you have moved into Aus­tralian wa­ters, and ship­wrecked sailors have no way of know­ing how far an Abo­rig­i­nal group’s in­flu­ence ex­tends.

“Per­haps the thing I’m dis­cov­er­ing across those two books is that hu­mans are at their most in­ter­est­ing when they’re on the move,” Serong says. “There is so much great fic­tion that comes out of any sort of odyssey. It drives good drama, I think.”

The mo­ti­va­tion that saw Preser­va­tion floated as an idea for a novel were Serong’s vis­its to Flinders Is­land since his early 20s. He found the is­land’s small com­mu­nity had a rich sense of sto­ry­telling, and the story of the Syd­ney Cove, wrecked just south of the is­land, is one of­ten told.

“It’s very much of the ta­pes­try down there,” he says. “So I’d heard that story many times go­ing down to Flinders Is­land and it al­ways in­trigued me be­cause it’s a ship­wreck story on the one hand but it’s also a first-con­tact story, which is such an im­por­tant part of it. It re­ally trig­gered the dis­cov­ery of Bass Strait, it trig­gered the emer­gence of the seal­ing in­dus­try and the walk­ers [sur­vivors] found coal on the beach. So many things came from this strange episode.”

The long walk, af­ter the sur­vivors are wrecked again on the Vic­to­rian coast, is seen from the view of three men, all with dif­fer­ent views of Bri­tish colo­nial­ism — one in­no­cent and ob­ser­vant, one with a com­mer­cial mind, for­ever look­ing for ways that will make the land pay, and the “gen­uinely malev­o­lent hu­man”.

“I think there are el­e­ments of all three ap­proaches in the way Euro­peans spread them­selves across the con­ti­nent,” Serong says.

There is also the char­ac­ter of Char­lotte, an of­fi­cer’s wife, one of the many women ren­dered in­vis­i­ble by his­tory.

“I thought with Char­lotte there was a real way to ex­plore the kind of pres­sures an of­fi­cer’s wife would have been un­der to con­form and to be a cer­tain type of per­son, where in­side she may have been scream­ing, ‘This is re­ally not my scene, I don’t want to live this way’,” Serong says. “And the bush, rather than be­ing a thing of ter­ror, was in fact very ap­peal­ing to her. I think that’s a re­al­is­tic way of think­ing about a per­son in those cir­cum­stances. It’s just that you can’t see it in the his­tory books.”

While much re­search went into Preser­va­tion, it is worn lightly in the nar­ra­tive, but not with­out dis­ci­pline from the author and his ed­i­tor. The story flows eas­ily, the back­ground blends seam­lessly into what is es­sen­tially an ad­ven­ture story, yet the mo­ral per­spec­tive of first con­tact — and the missed chances of learn­ing from the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants — is also ex­plored.

“Ideally, you want to have a great mass of stuff in the back of your head and just be pluck­ing high­lights from that to go into the book,” Serong says. “And in­deed a good ed­i­tor knows im­me­di­ately when you start writ­ing things down be­cause you looked them up. You have to be aware that ev­ery­thing is serv­ing the story.”

The novel is part of Serong’s PhD, re­search­ing the dif­fi­culty of look­ing back at lost land­scapes.

“All the river mouths they crossed would have been dif­fer­ent be­cause rivers were flow­ing dif­fer­ently be­cause there was no ir­ri­gation, the cli­mate was dif­fer­ent, land use was dif­fer­ent,” he says. “Bruce Pas­coe’s Dark Emu talks a lot about that [in­tro­duced species], and the fri­abil­ity of soil, and the things that could grow be­cause the soil wasn’t com­pacted. So it’s re­ally an in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge to try to pic­ture a land­scape that’s erad­i­cated. We can’t have it back.”

Serong grew up in Mel­bourne and stud­ied law at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne be­fore go­ing into com­mer­cial law and then mov­ing to WA to work on na­tive ti­tle, as a court­room solic­i­tor in Port Fairy and then as a bar­ris­ter for six years.

“I did a lot of na­tive ti­tle and asy­lum seeker work, but the back­bone of it was prob­a­bly crime, pros­e­cut­ing and de­fend­ing,” Serong says. “When my wife and I de­cided to have a fam­ily, we wanted to leave the city for good, and back down the coast was the ob­vi­ous place to go, be­cause surf­ing is a big part of my life, both of our lives. We’ve been in Port Fairy for about 14 years now.”

Serong de­cided to give up law and fo­cus on writ­ing when he had writ­ten a novel and a script, and friends had asked him to be­come the ed­i­tor of Great Ocean, a high-qual­ity quar­terly mag­a­zine.

“At one point, I was able to jug­gle those things out of hours, but I was us­ing up all my nights, all my week­ends and all my leave and I sort of looked at the sit­u­a­tion and felt at the time that was enough of a launch­ing pad to leave law and move full-time into writ­ing,” he says.

The 2015 Ned Kelly award vin­di­cated his de­ci­sion, but also saw him la­belled as a crime writer.

“That’s fine with me, but it’s in­ter­est­ing how far you can push it and still be con­sid­ered to be writ­ing crime,” Serong says. “The prize was a huge shock. It was not at all how I ex­pected things to turn out, but it was a mea­sure of af­fir­ma­tion of the work, but also that there was a hell of a lot more to do. I think if you spend a lot of time in a pro­fes­sion that is quite de­con­struc­tive, it’s a huge re­lease and it’s a huge plea­sure to see your­self as a creative per­son, be­cause ev­ery in­stinct tells you you’re not.”

Preser­va­tion, Jock Serong, Text Pub­lish­ing, $30

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