This book almost doesn’t belong here on this blog devoted to Australian crime fiction but its author is Australian and the book is, in part, a thriller. And there are plenty of criminal acts depicted in it. Or things that would be criminal if that word’s definition didn’t change at the whim of the powerful. So here it is.
Warning: I don’t normally curse in my reviews. But sometimes only a curse will suffice. If that upsets you, do not read on.
A disparate group of refugees from the Middle East pay for an Indonesian fishing boat to take them to Australia. There are rumours and half-truths about what might await them: detention camps perhaps. Worse? But they are fleeing persecution, torture and heaven only knows what else. It’s not really a choice in the commonly accepted meaning of the term.
Isi Natoli is skippering the Java Ridge for a group of seven of surfers looking for their slice of the surfing nirvana the waters around Indonesia are known for. Her partner Joel, the surfing legend who usually acts as skipper for these trips, has gone to Australia in a last-ditch attempt to wrangle some finances to keep their struggling business going.
In Australia there is a Federal election a week away. The party in government (Serong doesn’t identify which one but it is depressing as fuck to realise our major parties have converged so closely that it could be either of them) wants to win. At all costs. Cassius Calvert, former Olympic rower and current Minister for Border Integrity (a fictional but entirely plausible portfolio) announces new, tougher border controls which include the outsourcing of at-sea monitoring and a blanket refusal to allow Australian vessels to engage with foreign ones. Including for the purposes of rescue.
Somehow ON THE JAVA RIDGE managed to be so tense I had to stop reading to slow my breathing a couple of times, yet be so awfully, depressingly inevitable that I had to physically will myself to read through to the end. As if by not looking the outcome could be deferred or different. Alas that seems to have stopped working when I was about six. Of course some of the action is obvious: we know the two boats are going to intersect for example, but that doesn’t detract from the strong narrative pull of the book. Each of these stories, even the politician’s, is utterly compelling.
A lot of that is to do with the characters. The ‘stars’, including Isi, Calvert and also 9 year old Roya who has fled Afghanistan with her pregnant mother, each offer a unique and often unexpected window into their respective communities. Unlike almost everyone in Canberra these days Calvert is not a career politician, Isi is not the regular skipper of a surfing charter boat and not even Andrew Bolt could view Roya as the-potential-terrorist-in disguise that we’ve been led to believe all asylum seekers are. Given this book tackles the hottest of hot-button issues the choice to use these somewhat unorthodox characters as the primary way into the action is a master stroke. One of many. That doesn’t mean the more usual types of people who populate each world aren’t depicted, but for the most part Serong has chosen not to confront readers with them. Or at least not continuously. I think that’s the aspect of the book that might make it possible to get someone who isn’t already of the same political opinion as the author’s to read more than a few pages of this book.
Because there is absolutely no doubt where Serong sits on the issue of refugees and Australia’s current policies with respect to them. ON THE JAVA RIDGE is a polemic. Serong is, I think, genuinely outraged. That word has lost its meaning since outrage has become a weird kind of currency in modern culture but this is the real deal. The disbelief, fury and impotence at not being able to make people see is palpable. The story aims a giant, high wattage spotlight on the absurdity, banality and outright bullshit that falls from politician’s mouths on this subject. Presumably so that readers might all see. I have no clue if it will work on those who don’t already.
If it is possible to love and hate something at the same time then that’s how I feel about ON THE JAVA RIDGE. I love its heart and the way it let me see into new environments and its unrelenting tension. And the writing. Serong is a craftsman. But I hate that it had to be written. And that its vaguely futuristic sensibility isn’t nearly fictional enough to give me any comfort.
Publisher Text Publishing, 2017
Length 312 pages
Source of review copy Borrowed from the library