A furious work of fiction about real refugee policy
One of the ironies of fiction is that the issues that feel most urgent are often those that are most resistant to successful fictional treatment.
Why this should be is an interesting question, not least because our distaste for overtly political novels (and the tendency of writers to regard it as somewhat gauche) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many of the greatest novels of the 19th and early 20th century are explicitly engaged with the issues of their day, and writers from Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo to Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy were fired by an often white-hot fury about social injustice.
It’s tempting to suggest this delicacy has something to do with the commodification of culture and the privatising of pleasure more generally: after all, if literature is a commodity its value doesn’t lie in its capacity for social engagement but in its ability to reinforce the system that gives it value. Likewise, work that offends or outrages by revealing things we do not want to see is likely to be dismissed as vulgar and unnecessary.
But it may have something to do with the ongoing collapse of the boundaries between different forms of representation. After all, in a world where every moment, no matter how banal, is recorded, catalogued, curated, and where television is rapidly cannibalising the business of the social novel, the space in which fiction can operate becomes more circumscribed, the effort of imagination necessary to invest a moment, scene or character with the stuff of life greater.
These are questions that came back to me while reading Australian author Jock Serong’s third novel, On the Java Ridge, a book that engages directly and powerfully with the human catastrophe of Australia’s refugee policy. Set in Australia and the waters of Indonesia, the novel has as its backdrop the final week of a hard-fought federal election that opens with the announcement of new laws absolving the commonwealth government of all responsibility for refugee boats from the north.
Blandly routine in its political expedience and its moral bankruptcy, this announcement passes unremarked aboard the Java Ridge, a charter vessel operating out of Bali that, as the novel opens, is on a surfing expedition.
Despite the Java Ridge’s semi-legendary nate with Bridget’s and give us an another perspective on the colony. Marshall is a soldier seeking his fortune in the colony. He brings his wife Eleanor and her sister Jane to Van Diemen’s Land, hoping to escape their matrimonial problems, but those problems are only amplified by reputation, it’s a trip that begins uneasily. Joel, the owner, is in Australia chasing funding, meaning the boat is in the hands of his partner Isi who, perhaps unsurprisingly, soon finds her authority challenged by the almost exclusively male passengers, a process that comes to a head when one of them makes an unscheduled visit to a break off an uninhabited island some way short of their intended destination.
Seeking to save face, Isi gives in and anchors the boat in the lagoon. But when a storm hits a few hours later, and a refugee boat is wrecked on the reef sheltering the lagoon, Isi and the boat’s passengers must place their own lives in danger to rescue the drowning refugees.
The rescue and the scenes that follow it are the real heart of the book, and they are exceptional. Serong invests the chaos and confusion of the wreck and its bloody aftermath with a visceral power that makes for confronting but exhilarating reading. And although the escalating disasters of the book’s final third occasionally feel as if they may be more at home in a Hollywood thriller, Serong’s gr grasp of his Australian characte ters’ responses to events forensic sically deconstructs the ““woundedw privilege” of Australia lian masculinity.
Yet while the Australian ch characters, in particular several of the men, are extremely wellre realised, the Indonesian and Afgh ghan characters are less distinct. Th This has the unfortunate effect of making even the most impo portant of them — a Hazara girl ca called Roya — feel like bit player ers. It also underlines the point th the novel wants to make about th the degree to which the good fortune of the AustraliansA blinds them to the reality of life for those less fortunate.
More problematic again, though, are the Canberra sections, which centre on Cassius Calvert, the federal minister for border integrity. Like the grotesque prime minister, who is glimpsed towards the end of the novel, Calvert is essentially a caricature, blandly uninterested in the niceties of law or justice except in so far as they concern his capacity to achieve his own ends and devoid of inner life beyond an obsession with power games and winning.
Despite these flaws there is something salutary about Serong’s ambition in tackling these issues, and his refusal to accept the notion that the contemporary novel should confine itself to questions of the self. And while the book does not, and does not seek to, offer solutions, the fury at its heart captures the frustration and despair so many feel about the issue. is an author and critic. the presence of their assigned convict, Bridget Crack. In flashbacks, we learn how Marshall found himself drawn to her. When the Sheedy gang begins raising heck, Marshall is sent into action against them. The presence of Bridget among these killers causes him a good deal of conflict. Will he be forced to hurt her? Can she be saved? Again, Leary raises expectations here, only to take a very different tack. This book has more on its mind than easy answers.
What becomes clear after reading Bridget Crack is there is a good deal of life left in the convict saga. Leary has set about dragging the genre into the 21st century with this smart, unsettling update. That there’s a sense of menace on every page is only an added pleasure. This is the kind of book that keeps you reading past midnight, holding on for dear life. An incredible debut by a brilliant new talent.
is a Tasmanian writer. He is the author of the novels The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost.
Rachel Leary’s novel has a gritty and dark historical setting