Friday, 7 December 2018

Preservation, by Jock Serong.

            In 1797 the ship Sydney Cove was wrecked off Preservation Island in the Bass Strait separating Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land) from Australia.  The valuable cargo of rum and tea was salvaged, the captain and thirty-two of the crew stayed to guard it while the mate, carpenter, the supercargo, and tea merchant accompanied by thirteen lascar crew departed in a repaired longboat to sail to Sydney for help.
            Months later, three starving, wounded ghosts of men are rescued by a fishing boat;  two are European, the third a lascar boy supposedly unable to speak English.  The Supercargo William Clark is his master and has managed to keep a diary of sorts of their terrible experiences;  the other European is the tea merchant John Figge, made ugly by horrendous facial injuries:  both men have differing versions of the privations they have suffered – and their wounds, especially Clark’s, both of whose hands have huge spear holes in them.
            The men also take pains to avoid each other, and it is not long before Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, the Governor’s representative sent to assist them, discovers why:  the tea merchant has an unsettling air about him, not caused only by his smashed nose;  his general demeanour causes discomfort and hackles to rise.  He is not the man to ask for a favour, for the price paid for it might be much more than one could afford – as Grayling eventually discovers.
            And he discovers, too, that the young lascar boy Srinivas speaks fluent English, this talent hidden on the advice of his father:  one learns a lot more about a master’s plans if they think one is ignorant, which means that what is written in Clark’s diary  - especially about the wicked savages who cruelly injured them – has a dissenting witness.
            Jock Serong has turned the factual event of the wreck of the Sydney Cove into superb historical fiction.  He depicts with masterly skill the great natural world that mere handfuls of men were trying to tame and enslave, and the ‘natives’ who at first assisted, then vainly resisted the White Man’s Civilisation.  Much has been said and written about Colonisation in Australia - and New Zealand – but seldom matched by Serong’s gorgeous imagery when describing nature, and his stark and terrible depictions of man’s barbarity and savagery, in the name of civilisation, to his fellows.  There are parts of this novel that I had to read between my fingers, but it has been an unforgettable experience.  SIX STARS!     

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