It's is all too easy for historical novelists to portray the past through the rose-tinted lens of present-day sensibilities. Jock Serong cannot be accused of this. His fictional reworking of a real historical event - a shipwreck of a ship, the Sydney Cove, off the coast of Victoria in 1979 (less than ten years after the first European convicts and settlers set foot on Australia) - is uncompromising and gut-wrenching..
A group of seventeen set out in a longboat to get help, only to be wrecked again. What ensues is a desperate attempt to walk to Sydney. Of the seventeen, only 3 survive to tell the tale. Lieutenant Grayling has the unenviable task of trying to unravel what has happened to the other 14. He is not sure entirely whose word to trust and who is the villain.
For the reader, Figge, an imposter and murderer, is revealed at an early stage in the novel as a menacing presence. In him Jock Serong has created one of the most sinister and .unpleasant characters imaginable, but he's no cardboard cut-out. He is nuanced: clever, perceptive and often more in tune with the indigenous people that they encounter than anyone else in the group. And Figge is not the only one without scruples ...
This story skins any notions of Early Settlers respecting indigenous peoples. Their attitude and behaviour is both short-sighted and shocking. As the story unfolds, the reader is left with little sympathy for their plight with the exception of the young boy, who thankfully survives.
What hooked me into this novel, was not only Jock Serong's honest and unflinching portrayal of the characters, but the richness of his prose - the precision, the evocative detail, the poetry of his words on the page and the reimagining of history they effortlessly conjured. There were moments reading 'Preservation' that were harrowing, but if we want to have a more real understanding of past events, rightly so. This is not a novel for the faint-hearted. But if you want to see with a clear lens, if you want a truly authentic sense of what those times, the suffering and the struggle for survival, might have felt like, then this is a historical novel not to be missed.
Bravo, Jock Serong! I'm off to buy your other novels!