Marianne's Reviews > The Burning Island

The Burning Island by Jock Serong
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it was amazing
bookshelves: wishlist
Read 2 times. Last read August 24, 2020 to August 28, 2020.

“The surface was calm enough to reflect the galaxies, so that it looked as though the universe swirled all around us above and below, as if up and down had ceased to exist and only all around remained: the Moonbird was aloft and freed of its own weight.”

The Burning Island is the fifth novel by award-winning Australian author, Jock Serong and is a sequel to his earlier novel featuring Joshua Grayling, Preservation. When thirty-two-year-old tutor, Eliza Grayling is followed home from town by an ageing Indian, she cannot, for one moment, conceive that she will be, at his suggestion, setting out on a journey to Bass’s Strait with her ageing, blind father, mere days later.

Srinivas has come to her with a story of a missing ship: crew, cargo and passengers all believed lost, the wreckage of which he blames on a certain Mr Figge, the almost mythical figure who inhabits the disturbing story her father, Joshua sometimes tells. Once in the service of Governor Hunter, on hearing about the loss of the Howrah, the former Lieutenant exhibits uncharacteristic enthusiasm for the proposed investigatory voyage, clearly eager to draw out his nemesis. Eliza is well aware of her father’s problem with drink, and feels that his taking part is inadvisable.

What, more than anything, sways Eliza to participate in this rather nebulous quest, is the vessel itself, a Danish schooner named The Moonbird: “I have no regard for the idea that it is possible to love an inanimate object. I will choose instead to say that this modest boat, perhaps eighty feet of her, was animate. And she was entangled, right alongside me, in a venture that made no sense. I felt she was on my side … I felt the boat cared for us in our individual plights, held us cupped somehow: carrying us, rather than being sailed by us.”

The master that Srinivas has engaged for The Moonbird is a rather sombre man who surprises them all by garbing himself in a range of fetching dresses; the crew are two young convicts, capable brothers raised separately, who are both tender and volatile with each other; the paying passenger is a medical doctor intent on research of sea creatures for human nutrition, who fills the captain’s quarters with a laboratory’s worth of equipment and specimens.

The close quarters serve to quickly amplify both passions and conflicts, but it is not until a gross betrayal of trust and several deaths that the true situation is known.

Serong gives the reader an entrancing tale laced with some exquisite descriptive prose: “a wide body of water opened to the north of us, flat and serene and impossibly lovely. It made a chalky blue-green over the sandflats, a blue of royalty over the deeps, shades of lilac and mauve where a haze blended the two, further away. And in the places where waves rolled gently over reefs, other colours would dare to intrude upon the chorus of those shades; a burst of orange and brown where the surge lifted kelp to the surface, an explosion of white as the wave broke and dissipated”

He gives his complex characters some wise words and insightful observations: “Anyone who loves intensely will believe it is they who emit the light, they who shine warmth on the other. There is a selfcentredness in love, so strong that we fail to notice the loved one illuminating us” and, on grief: “You are fated to carry this all your days now, this loss. But you may alter its shape; that is the one grace permitted you.”

The Author’s Note details the actual historical events that form part of the story; readers will be grateful for the detailed map included; Serong’s extensive research is apparent on every page, touching on the structure of island sealing communities, the appalling treatment of indigenous Tasmanians by white settlers and government, and the “Christian” activities of certain nineteenth-Century evangelists, to name a few topics. This is a powerful piece of Australian historical fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Text Publishing.
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Reading Progress

August 24, 2020 – Started Reading
August 24, 2020 – Shelved
August 24, 2020 – Shelved as: wishlist
August 25, 2020 –
August 26, 2020 –
August 27, 2020 –
August 28, 2020 –
August 28, 2020 – Finished Reading
October 19, 2022 – Started Reading (Audiobook Edition)
October 19, 2022 – Shelved (Audiobook Edition)
October 20, 2022 – Finished Reading (Audiobook Edition)

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message 1: by Jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jo | Booklover Book Reviews Wonderful review. I have this on my reading pile - cannot wait to dive in!

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