There’s something disturbingly satisfying about those rare novels that deliver an upper-cut to your gut. If you’re a masochist like me when it comes to novels, pick up On the Java Ridge.
Literary award-winning Jock Serong packs a punch on board the Java Ridge, an authentic Indonesian phinisi that ferries Australian tourists to remote surfing spots in the Savu Sea. Against the better judgement of Australian skipper Isi Natoli, a group of excited tourists plunge into the reef of uninhabited Dana Island, having spotted virgin surf. Outnumbered, Isi is forced to concede to the tourists’ demands for epic swells and anchors the Java Ridge in the island’s sheltered lagoon. After an idyllic afternoon among the waves, the group set up camp on the shore. With a tropical storm brewing to the north, they hope for a dry night ahead.
Hundreds of kilometres away, the Takalar has also set sail. On board is young Roya and her pregnant mother. They are now only an ocean away from the Promised Land, Australia, after fleeing persecution in Iraq. As the only survivors of their family, Roya, her mother, and her unborn sister have journeyed long and far in search of safety and a new life. Unbeknownst to both the Java Ridge skipper Isi Natoli and the asylum-seekers on board the Takalar, the notoriously refugee-unfriendly Australian government is on the eve of a general election and is relentless in preventing any last minute immigration scandals.
When the Takalar’s engine runs of its mounts and capsizes on the reef of tainted Dana Island, Roya and her mother come face to face with a watery reaper. Dozens lose their lives to the swirling Savu Sea. Yet despite the stormy skies Roya and her mother’s stars align, and they are pulled to safety by the Java Ridge’s skipper, Isi. Woken by the screams for help, identifiable in any language, the Australian tourists rescue as many people from the doomed Takalar as they can. A make-shift triage operation is set up on the island as the Takalar sinks to the ocean floor. Grappling with few supplies and needing urgent medical attention, Isi decides to load the Australians and asylum-seekers alike onto the Java Ridge and set sail for Australia.
Meanwhile in Canberra, the Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, is beginning to make some ugly discoveries. Placed minister as a pawn, Cassius is self-absorbed and incompetent. The government has recently announced a new hard-line anti-asylum seeker policy that has the potential to cause public outcry. With the general election looming, it is vital that voters don’t scare. As Cassius starts to realise the grisly nature of the very policy he signed off on, his ineptitude proves him to be perfectly primed not to be able to prevent impending disaster. All the while, the Java Ridge chugs nearer.
Serong has a knack for creating characters the reader will invest in, and it is thanks to this skill that On the Java Ridge gets the reader eating out of the palm of one hand, and then delivers a sucker-punch with the other. Throughout the journey, we are subtly but expertly invited into the rationale of each character, resulting in some of the best understood and cared-for characters I’ve ever read (yes – even deplorable Cassius).
On the Java Ridge is a politically poignant thriller that is hugely relevant as developed nations grapple with the influx of uncontrolled migration. While certain governments draw international criticism on their hard-line immigration policies, there is a simultaneous rise in the popularity of notions such as those carried in the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome aimed against such policies. On the Java Ridge pushes readers to question how far their governments would go, and how far they would allow their governments to go in order to protect their borders. Serong’s novel is a timely reminder that we are all human, and just how easily we can lose touch with that shared identity.
Reviewed by Abbie Treloar
On the Java Ridge
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing