Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2017

On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

On the Java Ridge has a bit of a slow start, but once it gets going, it becomes a page turner.  The third novel of Jock Serong, it tackles Australia’s shameful refugee policies head on with a vivid tale set in the seas off the Indonesian archipelago.

There are three strands to the story…

The Java Ridge is a traditional Indonesian style boat,  kitted out with reliable fast engines and every available navigation and communication device, together with the sort of luxuries that privileged westerners expect when they trawl Indonesian coastlines looking for the perfect wave.  The boat is skippered by Isi Natoli while her boyfriend stays back in Australia to cadge some more money out of the banks to keep the business afloat.

The Takalar is a genuine Indonesian boat, tatty and unsafe, and overloaded with refugees heading for Australia.  On board is a very pregnant mother and her daughter Roya, who becomes a crucial character because she’s the only one who can speak a bit of English.

And in Canberra there is the Minister for Border Integrity Cassius Calvert, with an election imminent, delivering press releases about harsh new refugee policies to the media.   Basically, the policy offloads to Indonesia, all responsibility for providing assistance to asylum-seeker boats in distress, and they’ve outsourced surveillance to a private company called Core Resolve.

The slow start introduces what you’d expect: a bunch of surfers with distinct personalities, none of them people I’d want to add to my address book; a bunch of refugees with the kind of sad stories that sadly we’ve all heard before; and a bunch of political animals with characteristics that seem eerily familiar to anyone who’s kept a weary eye on Canberra politics over the last few years.

It’s when these worlds collide that things hoover along.  The male surfers on the Java Ridge overrule the female skipper and demand an unscheduled sojourn on the island of Dana because they are bored and want to start surfing.  The refugee boat has engine trouble and is wrecked on Dana’s offshore reef.  Nothing about the rescue is straightforward, and all that fancy gear on the Java Ridge counts for nothing when a man with another agenda hijacks the return journey.  And in Canberra, politicians and their apparatchiks who are busy with the election, are deep in denial about anything to do with refugees because they are off the political agenda: all sorted, as far as they’re concerned, and someone else’s problem.

On the Java Ridge asks the question: what happens when inhumane policies are applied to Australian vessels in distress?  Canberra assumes that the Java Ridge – because of its design – is an Indonesian boat.  With disposable refugees on board.  Far-fetched in places, the novel also confronts the reader with the question: just how far-fetched is this scenario, and why are we not in a position to answer that question?

The book reminds me of Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist in its purpose: to tackle confronting political issues in a way that’s palatable for people disengaged from politics and not willing to think much about what is done in our name.  On the Java Ridge is similarly a political thriller with literary qualities.

On the Java Ridge has had good reviews everywhere so, expecting this to be a bestseller, I checked out this week’s bestsellers at Better Reading. #ShakesHeadInDismay What a dispiriting result: not an Australian book among the top ten, and it’s no better at independent bookshops, from what I can see at Indie Bound.  But it’s No 3 at the publisher’s website behind Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (on my TBR) and Sunlight and Seaweed by Tim Flannery.  And I can vouch for its suitability for book groups: my optometrist is discussing it this month with his group!

Author: Jock Serong
Title: On the Java Ridge
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498394
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Available from: On the Java Ridge


Responses

  1. I’ll be reading this one too, Lisa.

    • Great, I’d love to know what you think of it.

      • I tried one of his The Rules of Backyard Cricket and gave up. This one sounds more like my type of read.

        • No, I wasn’t interested in that one either. And, as I say, this one has a slow start, and as I didn’t say, my eyes glazed over during the bits about surfing. But once the dots join up it becomes riveting reading.

  2. Much as I agree with the politics I’m not sure I’ll read this one, sounds a bit formulaic. My library has Confessions of a People Smuggler (audio) but I can’t get it to play properly. Hopefully I’ll get the problem sorted and the book reviewed soon.

    • Hmm. *disappointed frown* I’d like you to read this one. I think I would enjoy your review of it, whatever you think of it.


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