Preservation, Jock Serong

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

I've been trying to think of somebody else that could write books about abalone fishing quotas, cricket, asylum seekers and now early white Australian settlement, convicts, rum runners and shipwrecks and make them all equally compelling, memorable, and ... crime fiction.

Jock Serong is one of those writers whose books induce a spot of awkward happy dancing when they arrive - you're guaranteed of something different and unusual after all. Whilst each of the settings, and approaches have varied, at the core of Serong's books is a tale of people being people. Good, bad, indifferent, inspired, capable, incompetent, awful, ordinary, predictable and utterly unpredictable. 

In the case of PRESERVATION we have a fictional reworking of a true story - the attempt by seventeen shipwreck survivors to walk from the Victorian coast, east to Sydney. There was a diary of their exploits that survived, along with the three of the original sailors, and Serong has used the historical records of the time and the diary to weave a dark and mysterious tale of murder, treachery and theft. There are multiple threads to PRESERVATION though. The story of the sailor's survival, trek and the importance (and value) of the cargo the ship carried, is interwoven with a tale of the Indigenous people of the various areas, and how they initially helped, then attacked, the sailors. This provides a bigger picture of the causes and outcomes of tension between the locals and white settlers, including the poor choices of many white settlers in rejecting any local people's expertise and experience in the landscape. The other ongoing thread is the story of the white settlement of Sydney itself, seen mostly through the eyes of Lieutenant Joshua Grayling and his wife Charlotte. Grayling is tasked with discovering the truth of the shipwreck and trek as accounts vary, and his, and Charlotte's interaction with all the shipwreck survivors and the local aboriginal people is nuanced, sympathetic and complicated.

The Grayling characters are one of those portrayals that we need to remind us that it isn't true to say that all early white settlers behaved badly - therefore it's okay to dismiss the worst as "normalised". They are a reflection of many people that have recently been written about who upheld the rule of law, regardless of skin colour or social background, that stood for fairness and understanding. 

At the heart of PRESERVATION is a crime story though - it's a story about murder, identity theft, ill-gotten gains and greed. It's also a story of survival, intrepidness and standing up to authority on matters of principle. It's the sort of novel that will appeal to both pure crime fiction fans and historical novel readers alike and another perfect example of the sort of yarn that Jock Serong specialises in. I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.

Year of Publication

On a beach not far from the isolated settlement of Sydney in 1797, a fishing boat picks up three shipwreck survivors, distressed and terribly injured. They have walked hundreds of miles across a landscape whose features—and inhabitants—they have no way of comprehending. They have lost fourteen companions along the way. Their accounts of the ordeal are evasive. It is Lieutenant Joshua Grayling’s task to investigate the story. He comes to realise that those fourteen deaths were contrived by one calculating mind and, as the full horror of the men’s journey emerges, he begins to wonder whether the ruthless killer poses a danger to his own family. 

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