Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Review of On The Java Ridge by Jock Serong (2017, Text Publishing)

Two boats set out in Indonesian waters. One, the Java Ridge, skippered by Isi Natoli, is a tourist jaunt for Australian surfers. The other, the Takalar, carries refugees heading for Australia. It is not going to plan on either vessel, but then a large thunderstorm approaches. While the Java Ridge shelters in a lagoon on an occupied island, engine troubles prevent the Takalar making land. Drifting onto coral reef in heavy seas she flounders. The Australians and their Indonesian crew rescue as many people as they can, but over half the refugees are dead and one Australian is seriously injured. Meanwhile, in Canberra, the ruling party has just pushed through a new hardline policy regarding maritime assistance to vessels in trouble. In election week there’s little appetite to roll-back the policy, even if there are potentially Australians involved. Those stranded on Dana island are on their own.

On the Java Ridge is a morality tale concerning refugee and asylum seeker policy, with Serong exploring the politics and consequences of punitive programmes through three groups: the politicians and civil servants creating and enacting the policies, the Australian public, represented by a group of Australian surfers, and the asylum seekers themselves. Each has a principal character the story is hooked around: Cassius Calvert, former sportsman turned politician and the Minister for Border Integrity; Isi Natoli, skipper of the Java Ridge; and nine-year-old, Roya, who is travelling with her heavily pregnant mother, her father and brother missing in Afghanistan. Serong keeps the focus at the individual and group level throughout, capturing nicely the personal dynamics and lived experiences of the three groups. The result is a very humanizing, empathetic, character-driven tale that is threaded through with periods of danger, tension, action and loss, with the politics playing out in multiple everyday ways. The result is a contemporary social commentary that is not overly preachy or forced, but nonetheless drives home its message whilst remaining a thoroughly engaging tale of survival against the odds with a knockout denouement. I finished the book a few days ago and I’m thinking about the flurry of final sucker punches. A superior, slow burn, thought-provoking thriller.

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