Jock Serong has not done the same thing twice… until now. And even then, not really. The Burning Island is a sequel to Serong’s 2018 historical novel Preservation. Preservation drew on the true story of an epic land journey up the Australian coast in the very early days of the colony while also exploring the society of Sydney of the time. The Burning Island is set thirty years after these events and while it is also very loosely based on a historical event and revisits some of the players of that story, it is a very different tale of exploration, discovery and revenge.
Eliza Grayling is the grown daughter of Joshua Grayling, a character central to the events in Preservation. In her early thirties and still single, Eliza is burdened with looking after her father who was once an officer and has now fallen from grace, blinded by rotgut and constantly drunk. She is visited by Srinivas, one of the only survivors of the trek documented in Preservation, but also still determined to track down Figge, the psychopath who both killed Srinivas’ father and abused him on that journey. Srinivas, now a businessman, is convinced that Figge has caused the wreck of one of his ships in the islands in Bass Strait, the area where the two were shipwrecked thirty years before. Joshua also has unfinished business with Figge and, despite Eliza’s objections, Srinivas convinces him to voyage south to find out what happened to the lost ship and to help track down Figge. Concerned for her father’s welfare, Eliza agrees to go too, but also soon finds herself entranced by the small boat that will carry them and its strange crew.
What follows is the story of that voyage. The crew find those islands are mainly occupied by sealers, their ‘wives’ (mainly Aboriginal women who have fled from Tasmania) and children. Along the way, they will experience tragedy, encounters with the authorities, and wonderous seascapes. Much like his refugee drama On the Java Ridge, Serong is never more at home in his descriptions than when his characters are at sea.
Land masses in the distance appeared to float in the warm mist that clouded the horizons. Mountaintops hung in weird suspension. The sea darkened to slate blue. There could have been a storm in the far-off miles, the sky loaded with subterfuge, vague enough to hide a thunderhead.
The Burning Island can be read as a standalone tale but will have much greater resonance for those who have read Preservation first. Particularly in understanding the character of Figge. But those readers are also likely to be much less surprised by some of the long coming reveals that drive the final quarter of the book.
The Burning Island is another engaging and often fascinating work of historical fiction from Serong. Iluminating as it does a world of outcasts, rebels and fringe dwellers – in particular the sealers who scraped a living on the small Bass Strait islands but killed so many seals that they ended up destroying their own livelihood and the Aboriginal women of Tasmania, hunted by the authorities as part of a systemic attempt to wipe out their culture on that Island. The Burning Island this little-known aspect of history to life and wraps it in a revenge tale that itself has deep and interesting roots.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Thunder Bay (Douglas Skelton) – book review
- Consolation (Garry Disher) – book review
- A Room Made of Leaves (Kate Grenville) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.