The Settlement by Jock Serong – Our Review
The Settlement is Jock Serong’s third book in his Furneaux series – following Preservation and The Burning Island – though it can easily be read as a stand-alone.
Drawing on the journals of George Augustus Robinson, Serong fictionalises Robinson’s interactions with the indigenous Tasmanians he purported to protect, constructing a powerful narrative of dispossession, trickery, murder and colonialism.
Following the success of his hunting parties in gathering the last of the Tasmanian tribes fighting a frontier war against the brutal occupation of their lands in the early 1830’s, Robinson – simply referred to as The Man and later, The Commandant – is portrayed as a complex but ultimately flawed protector. Inflated with his own sense of destiny and a desire to be acknowledged for the great achievement of ridding Tasmania of “impediments to civilisation”, he turns a blind eye to the effects of his harsh policies on the people isolated on his “Friendly Mission” at Wybalenna on Flinders Island.
The powerful narrative of The Settlement is driven by Serong’s depiction of the ruthless, religiously-justified, destruction of a culture the colonialists could never understand. Torn from their country, denied their ceremonies, rituals and customs, Tasmania’s original inhabitants are abandoned to poverty and disease on the mission. Their treatment makes the reader at once ashamed and angry, a balance Serong handles with aplomb.
He creates a cast of unforgettable characters: the Storekeeper who observes the disintegration of his marriage while trying to alleviate the suffering of the innocent; The Catechist, one of the most loathsome figures in recent Australian literature; The Surgeon, looking to build his knowledge before moving to a better, more suitable posting; and the indigenous people held captive on the island, Tongerlongeter, Mannalargenna, Whelk and Pippy.
This is Jock Serong’s sixth book, and it shows. The writing at the sentence level is exquisite, while the overall narrative moves with a slow-burning fury. No reader will finish this book and not be moved by it.
Miles Franklin winner, Amanda Lohrey describes The Settlement as “An extraordinarily vivid imagining of one of the most significant encounters in Australian history.”
She is right. And it is a book that will doubtless attract the attention of the Miles Franklin judges in the coming year.
Review by Mark Smith