Jock Serong’s historical novel The Burning Island is narrated by Eliza Grayling, a 19th century Australian woman who has left the prospects of marriage behind. But in spite of not being married (and no children), she’s weighed down by responsibility to her drunken, blind father Joshua, a hermit who lives with rage and a burning desire for revenge. One day, at the marketplace, Eliza realises she’s being followed by Srinivas a man who’s looking for her father. Srinivas makes a proposal to Joshua: he will outfit a ship for a voyage to recover or discover the truth about the Howrah, a ship that disappeared along with its crew and passengers. It seems a strange task for an elderly, blind, drunk infirm man, but Srinivas has a bitter tale to tell. He suspects that the Howrah has been captured and sunk by Figge, a sinister figure in the Sydney Cove shipwreck. Joshua, as a “young lieutenant working as an aide to Governor Hunter” investigated the shipwreck and came to believe that Figge was responsible for the deaths of many of the survivors. Figge escaped before he could be brought to trial but since then Figge “was a tumour” in Joshua’s soul.
Srinivas, another survivor from the Sydney Cove shipwreck, claims that Figge has dogged him relentlessly over the years and, further, that every bad thing that has occurred in his life has somehow been orchestrated by Figge–a man who lurks near in the background and yet never shows himself. Srinivas argues that Joshua will be able to sniff out the truth about the missing ship and also be able to identify Figge if necessary.
Of course there so much wrong with this plan, but Joshua who is already in self-destructive mode fueled by a single minded drive for revenge agrees to go, and Eliza choses to accompany him on the trip.
The Burning Island is a rip-roaring adventure tale, but it’s not non-stop action. A great deal of the book’s focus is on the sea voyage and Serong’s evocative writing brings the wonder of the voyage to life. As expected, animals do not fare well in this tale and some sections were hard to read. As with many historical novels, there are some anachronisms, and Eliza’s character is somewhat unconvincing. There’s a captain who dresses in women’s clothes and I found this ridiculous, although it is explained later, and there’s a sleazy doctor on board the ship who seems a blend of Svengali and vivisectionist. The Great Reveal is screamingly obvious but then one of the book’s subthemes in blindness–literal and figurative. Finally, the sufferings of the aborigines under the guise of the steamroller of progress in well integrated into the tale.
Preservation concerns the Sydney Cove shipwreck and Joshua Grayling.