The Burning Island by Jock Serong

1. First lines. 2. Published 2020 Text Publishing 3. A view in Tasmania – Preservation Island, off SW corner of Cape Barren Island; view of the establishment of James Munro in centre, on broad plain, surrounded by cluster of trees. 1831 By Henry Laing – British Museum, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia 4. Shipwreck [Public Domain] via Pixabay

32-year-old Eliza Grayling lives in Sydney in the 1800s. Her father Joshua Grayling, is asked to locate the wreck of the Howrah, a ship they think was destroyed in Tasmanian waters by an old enemy of Joshua’s. Both Joshua and Eliza take a dangerous journey to the Furneaux Islands of Tasmania to find out the truth.


“And I am not someone accustomed to being followed. Lord, you’d die of the tedium.”

“The northern gate of the bay was announced by a towering cliff made of square blocks. So regular were their outlines that they could have been the work of some giant mason.”

“These, then were the souls the evangelists had collected. These were the innocents they were going to save from the depredations of settlers and sealers. Perhaps their complete despondence was only temporary: perhaps they would come to live in gratitude, fed on psalms and curtsies. Maybe this was the start of generations of happy Christian natives, and all done with the purists of motives. Maybe those in authority really did devote their time on worrying about the least, and least visible, of their subjects. I did not think so.”

My opinion:

I thought this was an engaging story, but to me, some events felt as if they were staged.

The opinion of others:
  • Sydney Morning Herald: “A dramatic voyage into the choppy waters of colonisation.” … “Serong has written a fine historical novel in The Burning Island. Its vivid depiction of Tasmania’s frontier wars during the 19th century, and those who survived them, allow us to reconsider the colonial infancy of the burning island we inhabit today.”
  • Readings: “Serong tells a gripping tale, a literary historical thriller with twists and turns aplenty, and the same menacing undercurrent perfected in Preservation. He is a master of character drama, and his rich storytelling is populated with many vivid personalities.”
  • Books and Publishing: “To read The Burning Island is to feel, very often, ‘all at sea’. Much of the novel takes place on the ocean, sure, but more than that, it can be hard to know what’s happening, and why.'”
Historical note:

The islands of the Furneaux Group were inhabited in the 1800s by sealers who took Aboriginal women as “wives”. This was also the time of the “Black Wars” in Tasmania, when Aboriginal people were being forced off the island of Tasmania. George Robinson, tasked with persuading Aboriginal people to move to settlements, made the journey to the Furneaux Islands to rescue the Aboriginal women from the sealers. One of these sealers, John Munro, who lived on Preservation Island was implicated in the deliberate wrecking of the ship Britomart in 1839, but he was not prosecuted. “The Burning Island” is based on this incident.


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