A fu­ri­ous work of fic­tion about real refugee pol­icy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley Ro­han Wil­son

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

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