Book review: The Burning Island by Jock Serong

Friday, October 2, 2020 Permalink

I’ve always regretted I didn’t read The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong*. It won’t surprise those who know how literarily illiterate I am that – because it came out late in the year – I actually assumed it was one of the Christmas-time sports books aimed at an easy gift for dads. 🙄

I’ve only heard amazing things about it so leapt at the chance to read Serong’s latest release. What I hadn’t realised about The Burning Island however, was that it is historical fiction (which isn’t a favourite of mine) and that it is actually the sequel to his earlier work Preservation.

It meant I probably didn’t appreciate the story on offer as much as I might otherwise have but I could certainly appreciate his beautiful prose and vivid descriptions of the islands of the Bass Strait and harsh coastline and living conditions of the time.

Book review: The Burning Island by Jock SerongThe Burning Island
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing
on 01/09/2020
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781922330086
Pages: 400

Eliza Grayling, born in Sydney when the colony itself was still an infant, has lived there all her thirty-two years. Too tall, too stern—too old, now—for marriage, she looks out for her reclusive father, Joshua, and wonders about his past. There is a shadow there: an old enmity.

When Joshua Grayling is offered the chance for a reckoning with his nemesis, Eliza is horrified. It involves a sea voyage with an uncertain, probably violent, outcome. Insanity for an elderly blind man, let alone a drunkard.

Unable to dissuade her father from his mad fixation, Eliza begins to understand she may be forced to go with him. Then she sees the vessel they will be sailing on. And in that instant, the voyage of the Moonbird becomes Eliza’s mission too.

I actually felt quite lost a few times. I didn’t entirely understand the point of Eliza and (former Lieutenant) Joshua’s mission or his vehemence towards (Mr) Figge. I eventually paused my reading to check other reviews on Goodreads – which is something I don’t usually do, lest I be inadvertently influenced. I did note then others talked about how much the events of Preservation set the scene for this second in the series.

I felt a weariness come over me. My father was hopelessly fixated upon a man who had wronged him thirty-three years ago. He would be as old as my father now and quite likely just as enfeebled. pp 30-31

The pace is almost plodding for much of the novel, with a scurry of activity towards the end. The slow pace however isn’t a bad thing. In some ways, the plot is secondary to the sense of place and the small moments on offer. Through these and the characters Serong offers a lot of self-reflection and contemplation.

We choose our memories, I believe. We take the recollections and assemble them and tend them like a garden. We proceed by small dignities. That is how you prevail. That is how you can stand up from your bed in the morning….

You must be feeling all these things, and choosing among them. You decide. You are fated to carry this all your days now, this loss. But you may alter its shape; that is the one grace permitted to you. p 338

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a visual person. I never read a book and picture the characters or scenery. I worry sometimes it means that descriptions of beautiful vistas are wasted on me, but I realise I can still appreciate the beauty of the words and the phrasing without actually ‘seeing’ any of it.

Serong’s prose are elegant and descriptive. And often very visceral.

Sydney roiled about: raucous and uncaring, a stripling at forty-two years of age. Bullocks and horses splattered the dust of the street. Voices hailed and harangued; someone yelling about oysters. Scrapping children, the eyes of the old folk upon them upon them, wondering in their breasts if these generations differed somehow for the accident of their birth. We do differ, down to the bones. And yet still we look homeward. p 2

In Eliza we have smart and blunt narrator. She’s honest about her own shortcomings, and pragmatic about life in general. Her relationship with her alcoholic and blind father – her frustration, anger and helplessness is palpable and certainly relatable.

Although I didn’t understand much of the motivation for the events of this novel, missing backstory and context, I could still appreciate Serong’s beautiful prose and the powerful and confronting reflection of Australia’s past.

You don’t understand it cause you want a simple answer. p 266

There’s something quintessentially Australian about this book even though it’s not really about parts of our history and culture we discuss. Serong has obviously done an inordinate amount of research – or just knows shitloads about our history, the sealing industry, sailing and Furneaux group of islands of the Bass Strait.

Through the voyagers’ island visits here we see a blending of cultures and customs which I think reflects the Australia of today. Sadly there’s also an acceptance of past wrongs and a kind-of pragmatic approach to making the best of the hand we’ve been dealt which I think is something that we’ve become far too accustomed to.

I was a little lost in the final stages of this book and—as I’ve been sidetracked with my university studies this review has taken about two weeks—I’ve now read the last quarter of the book three times and think I’ve absorbed a little more each time, and have a better understanding of the events at the end. I’m not sure I’m engaged enough to read more in this series but Serong’s beautiful words and poetic phrasing leaves me in no doubt I want to read his other work.

The Burning Island by Jock Serong was published by Text Publishing and is now available.

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

* And yes, I know I still can!


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