“She checked her treasures, the things from which she would never be parted: her father’s ring, heavy and scrolled, tumbling like a snail in the pocket her mother had sewn into her dress; and her English book – a worn copy of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, between the pages of which she kept the photograph she loved. Her mother. The ring. The book and the photograph. Between them she strung the globes of hope”
On the Java Ridge is the third novel by Australian author, Jock Serong. In Canberra, a week out from a Federal election, the Minister for Border Integrity announces a tough new policy to deal with boats illegally entering Australian waters. In Bali, seven Australians set out on a custom-built traditional Indonesian boat to surf the waters near Raijua Island. In Sulawesi, a boat full of asylum seekers departs under cover of darkness, heading for Ashmore Reef. What occurs over the next seven days will affect many lives and have major repercussions.
The bulk of the narrative is carried by three characters: nine-year-old Roya Sayghan is a Hazara from Herat who is hoping to reach asylum in Australia with her mother and unborn sister; Isi Natoli gave up a boring office job to partner with Joel Hughes in a surf tourism business; Cassius Calvert, a former Olympic rower turned politician, is beginning to have certain misgivings about the policy he has just announced.
Perhaps not much imagination is required to figure out what will happen, but Serong gives the reader a plot with plenty of twists and red herrings. He slowly builds up the situation, drip feeding complicating factors into the story, so that, each time the reader is sure nothing can be added, another wrinkle appears, escalating the tension, intensifying the drama, until the final shocking conclusion.
It matters little whom the reader casts in their mind as the Australian Prime Minister and the Minister for Border Integrity: their dialogue, attitudes and behaviour are more than plausible. Likewise, the rest of the cast exude familiarity: the dedicated surfers; the political staffers; the neglected son; the social justice advocate; the asylum seekers: the bored surveillance operator. The city of Canberra, too, is well conveyed. Serong’s prose is often exquisite, and he manages to insert some subtle black humour.
It is quite apparent that Serong has his finger firmly on the pulse of current events: this is a thoroughly credible hypothetical, a truly intriguing and frighteningly believable “what if?” that is brilliantly executed, acutely topical and extremely relevant. What will this talented author do next?