Preservation is Australian author Jock Serong’s most recent book. I bought this about six months ago, but have a silly habit of delaying things I’m looking forward to in order to prolong the pleasure of anticipation, so have only ‘allowed’ myself to read the book now. Ridiculous, I know…
Preservation is a fictionalised story of the survivors of a shipwreck which happened in 1797, when the Sydney Cove was wrecked near Preservation Island on Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland of Australia). Seventeen people, made up of five British and twelve Bengali sailors, took a longboat to the Gippsland coast where they were wrecked again. The men then set off on foot to Sydney, a town of only 1500 people at that time, by following the coast a distance of 700 kilometres. Only three of them arrived, including William Clark, a Scottish merchant whose diary entries were used as the foundation for this book.
The story has a number of narrators which include the three shipwreck survivors, William Clark, a fictitious character named John Figge and Clark’s lascar manservant, a boy named Svrinas. Other chapters are told by Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, whose job it is to ascertain what happened to the wrecked ship and to the men on their way to Sydney. Joshua’s wife Charlotte is also a narrator, and her chapters help to connect that of the British settlement in Sydney with the Aboriginal people who were already there. Each of the chapters is accompanied by a picture which helps the reader to determine who is speaking. Charlotte’s picture is of gum leaves, Svrinas’ is a lotus, Joshua’s is the crown and so on.
Joshua struggles to learn what happened to the survivors (and to those who didn’t make it to Sydney) due to the gaps between what Clarke and Figge tell him compared to what Clark wrote in his diary. It is clear that Clark and Figge are motivated to hide what actually happened on the trek to protect their wrecked cargo, ostensibly tea but actually rum.
The fictional story of the journey from the beach in Gippsland along the coast to Sydney is fascinating. The survivors set off on foot, crossing rivers in rafts they built along the way. They were watched the whole way by Aboriginal people in each district they passed through, sometimes interacting with them in a friendly way, being fed and assisted along their way and other times being treated with hostility. Some of the survivor’s behaviours caused the hostility and was sadly indicative of British attitudes at the time towards people of other races. It was interesting to read of the lascars and the Aboriginals’ respect for each other and more ready acceptance of each other’s ways.
Having lived on the NSW south coast for many years, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the areas the survivors passed through and was able to recognise the places where various events occurred, even though they were not named, including a near drowning in as the men crossed the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.
John Figge is a frightening character who almost but not quite, dips into the supernatural. I didn’t like this aspect of the story and thought his character and story strong enough to have been satisfactory without this element. I also thought that the storyline connecting Charlotte with John Figge was unnecessary, although other parts of her story were vital.
I didn’t enjoy Preservation as much as I’ve liked other of Jock Serong’s books (The Rules Of Backyard Cricket is particularly brilliant) but it was an interesting read. I’m in awe of this author’s ability to tell a completely different story in each one of his books.