On the north bank of the North Esk River just before it joins the Tamar in Launceston, North East Tasmania sits the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, the biggest regional art gallery in Australia. Here you can see the world’s oldest bottle of beer salvaged from the wreck of the Sydney Cove which in 1796 floundered on Preservation Island, a small island in the Furneaux Group off the NE coast of Tasmania. This book, published in October 2018, is a novelistic version of the aftermath and the journey by long boat to what is now Ninety Mile Beach in SE Victoria, then on foot for over 600 kilometers by seventeen of the survivors as they attempt to find their way to Sydney, raise the alarm, rescue the remaining crew, and salvage the cargo still on the wreck on the southern end of Preservation Island.
Only three of the survivors, more dead than alive, are rescued: Mr Figge, a tea merchant, but really a charlatan, William Clark, in charge of the cargo, mainly rum, and Clark’s manservant, a Bengali lascar, indentured sailor. A Lieutenant in the service of Governor Hunter, Joshua Grayling, is charged with the task of finding out how their horrific injuries were inflicted and how their fourteen companions died.
The story is told via several voices: the usual novelistic narrator, Mr Figge, William Clark and his journal, and the lascar Srinivas. Once the survivors are in care and recovery back at Sydney the back stories are given time to be revealed. The journey from Calcutta was horrendous; it’s a miracle the Sydney Cove made it so far. The tension of the awful journey, the possibility of death is ever present, is heightened by Mr Figge who only several lines into his story reveals his criminal past and intent. He’s the villain of the piece but only the reader knows this.
The story of the 600 mile trek along the south east coast of New South Wales is full of mystery, danger, betrayal, and friendly and dangerous natives; it’s a lawless land where anti-social deeds mean little when social norms are absent. It’s an adventure story, murder mystery of the early years of the Sydney settlement. However, it doesn’t quite meet expectations. That has something to do with the fact that the story is based on truth and although this is written as fiction, I felt Serong was inhibited a little by his aim of sticking to the historical truth. A moot point.
This is a diverting and well-written yarn. I’ll be searching out other Serong titles: Quota (2014), The Rules of Backyard Cricket (2016), On the Java Ridge (2017) and The Burning Island (2020) which won the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize and features an older Joshua Grayling and his daughter Eliza in another tilt at “epic storytelling.”
You can find the ebook edition here along with other formats and other Serong titles.
Here you can watch various interviews with Jock Serong about his work.