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On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong – book review

Jock Serong: well qualified to wade into the quagmire of social political issues via fiction. Photo/Rowena Naylor

A novel about asylum seekers compels readers to take a realistic look at the refugee issue.

Can a novel change society for the better? In the current political environment, it’s hard to imagine anyone harbouring such ideals, and yet the political novel is still alive and well. Australian lawyer-turned-crime writer Jock Serong is arguably well qualified to wade into the quagmire of social political issues via fiction. His first novel, Quota, interrogated the ethics of the legal system, and his popular The Rules of Backyard Cricket addressed themes of toxic masculinity and sports corruption. In On the Java Ridge, Serong tackles the topical issue of asylum seekers.

The story, comprising three narrative threads, begins with politician Cassius Calvert, the minister of the alarmingly plausible portfolio “Border Integrity”, who is charged with offloading Australia’s responsibilities for refugees making their way through Indonesian waters towards the Red Continent.

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Days out from a national election, Calvert must keep a brewing humanitarian disaster from reaching the press. If no one stumbles upon what appears to be a shipwreck near Australian waters, Cassius might survive the week.

Meanwhile, Java Ridge, a traditional Indonesian boat filled with Bintang beer and Aussie surfers, lurches from reef to reef, seeking the perfect wave. Sensing a storm, captain Isi Natoli heads to a lagoon and battens down the hatches.

Serong’s third narrative thread follows nine-year-old Roya and her pregnant mother, who have fled Afghanistan for a safer life. Having given everything they had to people-smugglers, they are stowed away in the Takalar. As the storm sweeps through, the vessel capsizes near Java Ridge, and as bodies bob in the swell, Natoli risks her life to rescue survivors.

At this point, the three narratives intersect. Serong exhibits impressive control, leaping between three vastly different viewpoints and delivering a fevered crescendo as compassion competes with political survival. Far from stumbling into a clichéd ending, Serong compels readers to take a hard-nosed look at the refugee issue, delivering some gruelling scenes but an ultimately satisfying conclusion.

All three protagonists are pushed to the edge, but it is the egotistical Calvert who emerges as the most-rounded and complete character. We somehow empathise with him, even though he is despicable enough to comfortably belong among the current tranche of Australian politicians.

Facing the prospect of political oblivion, Calvert, if he cannot save himself, can at least save those lost at sea, but Serong refuses to reduce his decision to a simple equation, reminding us that life’s big questions are rarely binary.

On the Java Ridge cements Serong’s place as one of Australia’s most innovative and ambitious crime writers. Those who enjoyed the subversive masculine undertones and seamless plot in The Rules of Backyard Cricket will enjoy this latest work.

ON THE JAVA RIDGE, by Jock Serong (Text, $37)

Jock Serong is appearing at the Writers & Readers section of the New Zealand Festival, Wellington, March 8-11.

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.