On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong

It’s hard to write a review for this novel without spoilers, but important to read it without knowing the ending.  If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you thought of it.


‘Six Australian flags hang rich and solemn, three each side of the doorway.’

One week out from an Australian Federal election, and the government announces a new hard-line policy regarding maritime assistance to asylum seekers vessels in distress. Cassius Calvert, Minister for Border Integrity makes the announcement:

‘From this point forward, no unidentified vessels in Australian territorial waters will be offered any form of maritime assistance. None .’

The Minister goes on to say that:

‘Any further incursions into territorial waters will be met with remote measures by our private sector partners, Core Resolve. ’

To the west of Australia, two vessels set off. The Takalar sets out from Makassar carrying asylum-seekers, the Java Ridge sets out from Bali carrying a group of Australian surf tourists. The two vessels will meet at Pulau Dana, north-west of Ashmore Reef. Isi Natoli, skipper of the Java Ridge had another destination in mind, but an incoming storm changes her plans. The Java Ridge takes shelter inside a lagoon. The Takalar is experiencing engine trouble, and has limped around the island, seeking a way into the lagoon. They’ve seen the Java Ridge: ‘A boat just like theirs.’
Surely, now, they will be safe?

In a fast-moving novel, full of drama, heartbreak and tension, Mr Serong had me hooked from near the beginning until the end. And the ending? Should I be grateful that it’s fiction, and cling to my belief that the Australian government would never be so callous? Or should I wonder where the fine line between fact and fiction is, and whether it might shift?

There are many powerful passages in this novel but this one in particular will stay with me:

‘Look out wider, Minister. Forget about the boat people for a moment. This dependence on the private sector, it’s creating cracks for things to fall into. The mark of a totalitarian state isn’t all the picaresque violence and the rallies: it’s the fact that things start to vanish.’

An unsettling and disturbing read. A novel to read and discuss while we think about how we Australians wish to see Australia perceived in the wider world.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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