One of the greatest things about Australian literature is its ability to continually surprise and reinvent itself – in voice, subject matter, and timeliness. In Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge, a range of familiar and exciting characters wrestle against the damp reality of the present, finding themselves dreaming of a better life in myriad personal ways.
The story begins with familiar political rhetoric: weeks before the Federal election, a proud Australian politician greets the flashing cameras and live streaming video to announce that from now on no unidentified vessels in Australian territorial waters will be offered any form of maritime assistance.
From there, Jock Serong takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey that excavates the heart of the differing perspectives of asylum seekers.
On the legendary Java Ridge, a group of Australian tourists keen on surfing anchor themselves off the coast of Indonesia, near an enchanting reef. For Isi, steering the Java Ridge is just a job made harder by defiant, carefree surfers with no regard for the preservation of the reefs they want to surf amongst.
In the meantime, young Roya documents the experience of fleeing Indonesia for Australia on an overcrowded boat called the Takalar, where tensions run high, water becomes low in supply, and some asylum seekers have travelled from as far as Afghanistan. As more and more necessities start dwindling, people begin to understand what it takes to stay alive, and they turn on the ferryman, their misfortune, and each other.
In the safety of Canberra, Cassius Calvert, Minister for Border Integrity, has pledged himself to a new severe policy regarding efforts of the Australian maritime patrol to assist asylum seekers in distress – and it’s not favourable for those truly in need, out at sea, and yet is doing wonders for the upcoming federal election on the horizon.
The micro-worlds upon the Takalar and Java Ridge are catapulted into disaster when a looming storm descends on both ships – putting politician Cassius’ resolve to stay idle in the face of catastrophe to the test.
Since it tackles some important contemporary concerns, such as refugee policy in Australia, one of this novel’s greatest feats is entering the minds of all players involved with grace. We hear the stories of politicians in Canberra, laidback tourists on a surfing tour around Indonesia, and those unfortunate enough to be fleeing their homelands on overcrowded, under-equipped, and – most significantly – unwelcomed boats.
Each character is treated with sensitivity and empathy, a reminder of the power of storytelling to evoke far more than reality. Not to mention Serong’s romanticist attraction to landscape, which is powerful enough to creep up on the unsuspecting reader and surprise with its keen-eyed observations of beauty, and rivals characterisation as his greatest writerly quality. It is a political thriller with a twist of romanticism, a modern telling of voyages at sea that ring true and exhilarate all at once. Serong is another rising Aussie star we’ll be watching very closely.
Jock Serong is the author of Quota, winner of the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, and The Rules of Backyard Cricket, shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2017.