Hilary Mantel says that the moment information in historical documents dries up, the writer of historical fiction steps in, fills in the gaps, and gets to practise their expertise. In Preservation the historical document in question is, explains it author Jock Seron, ‘the lost diary of a shipwrecked mariner [William Clark] reproduced or perhaps paraphrased much later by a newspaper named the Asiatic Mirror.’ It concerns the fate, in 1797, of The Sydney Cove, a three-masted country trader shipwrecked in the Bass Strait, and that of its crew members who embarked upon the long walk to the newly established Sydney, some six hundred miles to the north. Three made it; the rest did not.
This is a story of intrigue and mystery, masterfully told by an author totally in control of his craft who uses a handful of central characters and their testimonies to slowly unfurl what happened between the ship’s sinking and the arrival of the three survivors around two months later. Unusually, each of the book’s forty-three chapters is told from one of about half a dozen different viewpoints, the true picture coming together slowly over the course of the story’s telling. In a novel move, Serong flags up a chapter’s narrator by the use of appropriate symbols at the head of the opening page: a crown for Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, of Government House; a bunch of leaves for Charlotte, his wife; an anchor motif for William Clark; a flower for the young lascar boy; and a fig leaf for the John Figge – reputedly a tea merchant from London. Each has their part to play in uncovering the mystery for the reader, each constrained in what they can, will or will not, say by rank, gender, linguistic ability or… guilt, perhaps. The colony’s authority figures are driven by a righteous desire – a duty – to find out and report on what truly happened to the missing men; Charlotte by her intuition and compassion for the character she is convinced knows the true story; the others, by guilt, fear, or both.
And can there have ever been a more detestable central character than John Figge? Through his thoughts and ruminations we are exposed to the dark recesses of his poisoned mind. Scheming, immoral and cunningly intelligent, Figge plays the supporting cast for fools in his warped game of show and tell.
Of particular delight is the author’s evocation of seamy late eighteenth century Sydney night-life: Its bars – a row of small benches projected from the far wall, lit only by a greasy lamp overhead. The reek in here was rancid tallow and piss; The bar owners – a man who looked, as if he wasn’t swaying, as if he might be the inn keeper; and its clientele – drunks, trollops; forlorn and forgotten. As the soldier, Grayling, weaves his way through the dangerous and unfamiliar territory frequented only by convicts and lesser ranks, we weave with him, looking over our shoulders every step of the way.
Serong can do hard-hitting and shocking – I have some of this man’s gore on my neck and my cheek leading me to think that I must have been close to him when it happened and out there [in Calcutta] oozes the [River] Hooghly, conveyor of half-dog and raw timbers and human shit and ashes and the dreams of holy men upstream of the ghats. Between khaki and brown, but paler than both, the discharge of a septic wound – but he can also do minutely observed, tender and sensitive as when Charlotte questions the young, lascar boy on his sickbed: The square light of the window formed a glint on his left eye, on the lower lid. The glint curved and lengthened, swelled into a tear. ‘You can tell me,’ she whispered. The tear rolled, then hung by his ear. ‘You can tell me everything.’
If approaching the book as a reader, Preservation hooks you in with the mystery of the shipwreck and the gradual unfolding of events as revealed by the various, not always reliable, narrators. And for the writer, the book offers great examples of ‘show not tell’, character development, and the dramatic interplay between a group of individuals, each of which who is, in their own way, marooned, a world away from home.
A great read.
Score: 5 stars
Image courtesy of Amazon.co.uk