The Burning Island by Jock Serong

‘I had been aware of the man in the corner of my vision for an hour or more.’

Sydney, 1830. Eliza Grayling, thirty-two years old, has lived in Sydney all her life. Unmarried, she lives by herself and looks out for her father Joshua, a reclusive alcoholic.  There is something in Joshua’s past that haunts him.  Something that happened before she was born, something he does not speak about.

‘Circumstances are strands in a rope … it was their combination that mattered.’

And then, another man from the past arrives.  Srinivas, whose ship the Howrah has been lost.  Srinivas wants Joshua’s help.  He believes that foul play is involved, in the islands of the Furneaux group.  After following Eliza, Srinivas meets with Grayling.  Grayling remembers him and agrees to help.  He sees an opportunity to meet with his nemesis, Figge.   An opportunity to revisit and put right what went wrong thirty-three years earlier.

Joshua Grayling is blind: Eliza feels obliged to travel with him.  They are to travel on the Moonbird, with a small crew, including Dr Gideon who is a medical doctor and an amateur naturalist.

What follows is an extraordinary voyage at a time when sealers were operating in the Furneaux group and when George Augustus Robinson’s agents actively seeking to remove Indigenous women from the islands.  Mr Serong brings his characters to life: the flawed fictional characters as well as the real sealers and the tyereelore women living with them on the islands.  It is a dark tale of pursuit, strength and weakness, and the power of the past over the present.  Will Joshua Grayling find the answers he is looking for?  Will Eliza be able to protect him from himself?  It is an epic journey, a brilliantly written novel which, having given me some unforgettable images, has claimed its own space in my memory.

Mr Serong’s Author’s Note includes the facts around which this fiction is woven.  He also provides some suggested reading for those of us who want to know more about the Furneaux group and those who lived there.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith