Review: ON THE JAVA RIDGE by Jock Serong

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
ISBN 9781925498394
Length 312 pages
Format paperback
Source of review copy Borrowed from the library

Review: THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET by Jock Serong

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fWhen THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET opens Darren Keefe is trussed up in the boot of a moving vehicle. He believes he is being taken somewhere to be killed and doesn’t seem terribly surprised by the fact. For him the only real mystery is whether or not he’ll be forced to dig his own grave before death. A difficult proposition given his left hand hasn’t worked properly since the broken thumb of years before. And he’s been shot in one knee.

For a long time this is really all we learn about Darren’s present-day life. Over the rest of the book there are brief return visits to the boot, where Darren is making half-hearted attempts to free his cable-tied limbs. But before we can find out why Darren is in this predicament we have to learn what led up to it. Darren’s story begins on the backyard pitch where he and his older brother Wally fight for supremacy

From the day – lost now in the Kodachrome blur – when we take up backyard cricket, we are an independent republic of rage and obsession. Our rules, our records, our very own physics. Eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand combat. By the time we emerge into the world beyond the paling fences, it surprises us to learn that anyone considers this a team sport.

You might not have grown up in a cricket-mad household. The names Lillee, Thomo and the rest may mean nothing to you. And it’s possible that you don’t know mid-on from fine leg (the vegie patch and the asbestos outhouse respectively in the Keefe backyard, the small rose garden and the rumpus room wall in the backyard of my own youth). You may never have known the anguish of watching a whole Test only to have it end in a rain-soaked draw on the final day. But even if all this is true you couldn’t fail to miss the authenticity in the depiction of Darren and Wally’s lives. It’s not just that the pages of the book have absorbed Australian cricketing lore in a physical way. It’s that the obsession the boys display for it is entirely believable. The most natural thing in the world. Their single mother works dead-end barmaid jobs to keep her sons in cricket gear. The game – and their skill at it – is the best chance they have of not re-living her own hard life and Pamela Keefe is almost as determined as her boys.

But, like many brothers that have come before them, the Keefes are not equal in all things. Wally is disciplined, focused, responsible, emotionally impenetrable. Qualities which are almost as important as his talent in securing him the ultimate prize – the Australian captaincy. Darren is none of these things. To call him a risk taker would be misleading; implying as it does that he weighs up the potential consequences of his actions. Darren doesn’t put nearly enough thought into things for that. On the field his innate ability and the fact that his boyhood tussles with Wally were tougher than almost anything anyone else can dish out take him a long way. But a combination of hubris and lack of forethought bring on the game-changing injury to his hand. He never reaches the heights he imagined for himself as a kid. Though high enough that his fall from grace, when he becomes “…a man who retains a public profile, but with all the good parts eaten away”, is deeply painful to watch.

That was the first surprise for me here. As someone who normally wavers between disgust and boredom at the adoration and sycophancy heaped upon sports stars – even those who continuously engage in juvenile, debauched and often illegal activities – I was not predisposed to feeling much other than scorn for Darren Keefe. And some of that is there. He really does have no one but himself to blame for his circumstances. But Serong’s portrait is so nuanced…so honest…that I will, somewhat grudgingly, admit to feeling much more. At times my heart ached. Because I saw that to be angry at Darren for his inability to behave sensibly would be akin to scoffing at a paralysed person for not walking up a flight of stairs. Like there is free will involved in either case.

The resolution to the story was the second surprise. In the way that being struck from behind with a brick might be. The noir label is thrown around with far too much abandon for my liking but as I closed the back cover of this book I thought it might just be the most perfect example of the genre I’ve read. In forever. For me noir is at its finest when the inevitable quality to the ending is only visible in hindsight and I am left physically aching for a different outcome while knowing such a thing would be both impossible and imperfect. The very definition of bittersweet.

I would recommend this book to everyone. Except I am a bit worried about how those who still think of cricket as the gentleman’s game might fare with it. There’s nothing genteel about any of the cricket in this book. Not the war waged in the Keefe’s backyard and not the big, sometimes corrupt business they are involved with as adults. But everyone who isn’t afraid of losing their wide-eyed innocence about the sport should read this book. It is beautifully written, brutally honest and gets the balance of aching sadness and dark humour just right. An outstanding read.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Text [2016]
ISBN 9781925355215
Length 291 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

A blessing of awards for Australian crime fiction

In the interests of full disclosure I should admit that the collective noun ‘blessing’ apparently applies to unicorns but since I’m not convinced fictional creatures should get a noun all of their own I thought I’d borrow it for my purpose. Due to life…and death…getting in the way I have been remiss in discussing all the recent awards that have come the way of Australian crime writers lately but I’m hoping the old adage “better late than never” still applies to most of life’s awkwardnesses.

LifeOrDeathRobothamAudioIn reverse order, timeline wise, we’ll start with congratulating Michael Robotham whose LIFE OR DEATH won the prestigious British Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger Award this week. It’s a standalone novel that starts with the premise of a young man escaping from a Texas prison on the day before he is due to be released. Driven equally by in-depth character development and a heart-stopping plot it’s easy to see why the judges were taken with this novel, even with its impressive competition. Kerrie reviewed the novel here at Fair Dinkum Crime (and though I didn’t review the novel I concur with her sentiments and can also recommend the audio version of the book beautifully narrated by John Chancer). An article in Today’s Sydney Morning Herald provides some background information on the novel and Michael’s history as a writer, including a heartfelt admission on the downside of being a ghost writer.

BigLittleLiesMoriartyNext we move to the 2015 Davitt awards for crime writing by Australian women which were announced on August 29. Best Adult Crime Novel went to Liane Moriarty for the surprise crime novel BIG LITTLE LIES. As this book is set to be a film starring ‘our’ Nicole I suspect this is not the last we’ve heard of this particular title. Other winners on the night included Ellie Marney for Best Young Adult Novel with EVERY WORD and Caroline Overington for LAST WOMAN HANGED which took out the Best Non-Fiction category. The Reader’s Choice Award (voted by members of Sisters in Crime) went to Sandi Wallace’s TELL ME WHY. And because she is one of my favourite authors ever I can’t let this occasion pass without noting the Highly Commended certificate judges gave to Sulari Gentill’s A MURDER UNMENTIONED in the Best Adult Novel category.

EdenCandiceFoxFinally we must mention this year’s Ned Kelly Awards, winners of which were announced earlier in August. Candice Fox’s second novel EDEN took out the Best Crime Novel Award while Helen Garner’s THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF won in the Best True Crime category and QUOTA by Jock Serong was voted Best First Crime novel. We’ve been a bit remiss here at FDC in not reviewing any of these but at least two of these are buried in my mountain of unread books so I will get to them. One day.

I think that’s it for all the missed news, our belated congratulations to all.