Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2018

Preservation (2018), by Jock Serong

Preservation was an impulse choice: I saw it at the library and I’d enjoyed Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge (which BTW has won some awards since I read it).

Preservation is quite different in that it’s historical fiction set in colonial Sydney, and it only obliquely tackles the problem of evil in the present day.  It’s basically a detective story but it’s absorbing reading because it’s a howdunit and a whydunit rather than a whodunit…

The novel is derived from the true story of shipwreck of the Sydney Cove.  This is the blurb:

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.

The ship which set sail from Calcutta in British India was carrying rum, which was then the currency in the fledgling settlement of Sydney.  Among the Sydney Cove’s passengers is a man soon revealed to be a psychopath called Figge; a naïve entrepreneur called Clark trying to beat the East India Company at its own game; and Srinivas, a Lascar learning the ropes of service from his father who is the unacknowledged leader of the Lascar crew. The narrative gives voice to all three, and also to Lt. Grayling and his wife Charlotte, who discovers that Srinivas speaks English and has witnessed incriminating conversations between Clark and Figge as to the fate of the fourteen companions.  These narratives with their competing versions of the truth build to a climax.

From the outset it is clear that Figge is not what he seems.  He claims to be a tea merchant but lacks the requisite knowledge of teas, and his clothes don’t fit.  Clark’s wounds are odd too, more like stigmata than injuries acquired in battle with the Indigenous people, and his journal of the journey omits details that are obviously significant.   Both Governor Hunter and Lt. Grayling are suspicious but entirely dependent on the stories they are told; it remains to both of them to somehow manipulate the narrators into revealing discrepancies in their tales.  If not for Charlotte’s fortuitous relationship with Srinivas, the officers would be none the wiser about much of what happened.

For anyone remotely familiar with the landscape and rugged environment along the south-east coast of Victoria and the route north to Sydney, the story of the 600-mile walk through the bush is astonishing.  Serong recreates the desperation of hungry men tortured by biting insects and confronted by swamps, rivers and lakes.  They reluctantly learn to take the advice of helpful Aborigines who know which coastal formations turn back on themselves, but not all the Indigenous people are friendly, and especially not after Thompson and Kennedy assault one of their women.

Figge is a seriously nasty piece of work, and a couple of scenes are not for the tender-hearted young.

Author: Jock Serong
Title: Preservation
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781925773125
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Preservation


  1. I’m looking forward to reading this book. There was a good ABC Earshot program, featuring one of my favorite historians Mark McKenna, about the wreck of the Sydney Cove.


    • Ah, that’s sounds interesting. I wonder if I can listen to it and do my French homework at the same time…


      • If you’re anything like me trying to multitask when I’m doing Spanish, NUP.


  2. I still have On The Java Ridge to get to


  3. I read this over Christmas and I’m still trying to come to terms with it. My reading was very interrupted as I had family staying so did not get a good run at it. I enjoyed the story, loved to hate the villain, but didn’t feel connected to it or the chatacters in any way and couldn’t wait to finish (which happens to any book I read that takes more than a week to read). Not sure if it was the book or my reading circumstances.


  4. It makes it hard to enjoy a book if you can’t get a good run at it. I found it good reading without being unputdownable (if you know what I mean) but no, I wouldn’t have said I connected with any of the characters. I connected more with the bush setting…


  5. […] Preservation by Jock Serong, see my review […]


  6. […] Preservation by Jock Serong, see my review […]


  7. […] which is  book #2 of the Grayling Family trilogy, following on from Preservation (which I reviewed here).  Book #3 is in the pipeline and it sounds very interesting indeed.  (The next day Jock and I […]


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