I found Jock Serong’s novel Preservation through the pages of the sadly defunct magazine Great Ocean Quarterly, of which he is the editor. Great Ocean Quarterly is an Australian magazine about the sea that was published between 2013 and 2015, covering miscellanea about life around and in the sea, art and culture connected to the sea, and with a distinctly southern hemisphere feeling and aesthetic. It’s a beautiful magazine and a really worthwhile addition to my library, one of those quality publications that, like a good role-playing book, really needs to be held and physically savoured to properly enjoy. I don’t think it’s possible to buy this magazine for love or money, so I count myself very lucky to have stumbled on it when I did (through instagram I think) and to have been able to pick up most of its issues.

It’s probably difficult for non-Australians to understand, given our reputation as uncultured sports jocks, but there is a very distinct aesthetic and sensibility to Australian culture, a sense of style that comes from living in a huge, harsh land near the edge of the world, under a high blue sky and blessed with some of the best weather in the world, where the seasons don’t match the flow of time that our western cultural heritage says they should, and none of the origin stories of the western part of our culture match where we live. It’s a land of washed-out colours, ochres and yellows rather than greens and blues, storms and bright sun rather than rain and snow. If you have left Australia and lived in the north you can definitely feel the huge distance between our Australian sensibility and that of the northern hemisphere, and if you have lived in the old countries – places like Japan and Europe with long histories – you can also feel the huge gaps in our cultural memory, and maybe get some sense of the effect of those gaps on how we think about ourselves and the world.

Serong’s novel Preservation dives straight into one of the bloodiest and most shameful of those gaps, the lost history of the settlement of Australia and the many dark holes left in that history by rapacious westerners burying the bodies of their misdeeds – and the stories that should have been told about what really happened when westerners came here. The novel tells the story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, a ship that was wrecked near Tasmania in the Furneaux islands in 1796. At this time there were no maps of most of Australia, and nobody knew that Tasmania and the mainland were not connected, believing instead there was some kind of bay between what was then called Van Diemen’s Land and the eastern coast. Three of the shipwreck survivors set off by longboat along with 17 Bengali sailors (called Lascars) to cross this “bay” and find help at Port Jackson. However, they were wrecked again at Ninety Mile Beach on the mainland and so set out on foot from there to try and reach the settlement in what is now Sydney. This required 400 km of walking on land no westerner or Bengali had ever set foot on, and only three people survived the journey – one Bengali sailor and two white men, one of whom kept a diary. This novel tells the story of all the gaps in that diary, including how the other members of the expedition died and what really happened when this motley group encountered Indigenous people on the journey.

The story is reconstructed by Joshua Grayling, the governor’s assistant, who shuttles between interviewing the diary keeper, William Clark, the Bengali sailor, Srinivas, and a third survivor, Mr. Figge. It is clear that they all hate each other and that bad things happened on the journey, and Grayling and the governor are both very suspicious of everyone’s story, but they need to find out what happened so they can send a ship for survivors, and as their suspicions grow so that they can decide who to punish. Grayling’s attempts to learn the truth of the journey happen against a backdrop of increasing political tensions within the Sydney colony, his own wife’s growing sickness and her strange fascination with the bush, and growing tensions between white settlers and the Indigenous people around Sydney. Outside the cleared area of the settlement itself the Aboriginal people are beginning to fight back, with famous warriors like Pemulwuy leading attacks against the settlers and striking fear into the hearts of the colonizers; meanwhile, convicts would escape and run away to join the tribespeople, or live wild in the bush. Knowing what we now do, we are aware that stories about William Clark’s encounters with the Aborigines on his way north will affect the way the colony treats them, that lies about their behaviour are too easily believed and misdeeds by white settlers too easily ignored. It also becomes clear that Figge is a uniquely evil man, and that Clark is a dishonest and selfish man with a lot to lose.

The story is a kind of survival horror, with the group unraveling as they head north, various schemes and objectives playing out, and everyone becoming increasingly desperate as their food supplies run low and their clothes, shoes and strength begin to fail. At times the going is quite grim, and there were one or two points where I put the book aside for a few days so I could take a break from the viciousness. I think it’s safe to say that the ending won’t satisfy everyone, and as the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer notes, there are a lot of stories left unfinished, which will leave one pondering what might have been long after the book is put down. There is also a constant sense of dread and looming disaster, even in the bright sun of the colony, so that you never can be sure when, how or if the horrors of the journey are going to be unleashed within the colony itself. If you can’t handle this kind of horror and slow unraveling then this story is definitely not for you, and the violence is neither cathartic nor enjoyable when it happens. Even at its worst though it is well tempered by Serong’s writing, which is rich with descriptions of the Australian bush, terse when it needs to be and expansive when it suits, with a good pace. The story is told from several characters’ point of view but manages to present them – through speech style, perspective and tone – as different voices, something many writers fail at, and an achievement that makes it much easier to immerse oneself in the book. There are jarring moments when I switch to a new chapter, expecting to continue the story of a particular character, and suddenly realize from the change of tone and perspective that I’m someone else – this is good, a sign of a good writer really bringing his characters to life.

Through these characters we learn the true story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, their interactions with the natives as they traveled north, and what happened in Sydney when they arrived. We also see a vision of how the land was before it was “settled”, and get to imagine how the first Australians dealt with these strange and confusing interlopers before they knew anything about them. There can be no truth about any of this, of course – we don’t know enough about the history of either the early colonists or the Aborigines whose land rights they extinguished to be able to say – but it offers a welcome opportunity to try and imagine that land in that time, and how white settlers presented themselves when they were there. At times it is a grim and nasty read, and it will leave you unsettled, but it is an excellent book and well worth whatever effort you need to make to overcome its harder moments. I strongly recommend it for anyone who is interested in how we can reimagine the gaps in Australia’s past, and people who dream of what might have been.