Quota by Jock Serong
Victoria's south-west coast is to Victorians what the outback is to the rest of Australia. Yeah, that statement is a gross generalisation but the thought hit me while reading Quota by Jock Serong and I think I might run with it. After all, it's not inaccurate, just a little overblown. Like the outback, Victoria's south-west coast is sparsely populated, the countryside time-worn, and the space – angry ocean in Victoria, endless desert in the outback - provides the abyss that “stares back into you.” All these elements are visited and used to affect in Quota.
Serong is the editor of Great Ocean Quarterly, a feature writer at Surfing World and Coastalwatch, and now a first time novelist. It's said that when a writer attempts their first book they go to what they know and that much is true for Serong. He has 17 years experience as a lawyer and calls upon it for this novel which you'll find in the crime fiction department. “The law of the sea is unforgiving” is the book's tag line.
The story is set in Dauphin, a fictional town on Victoria's south-west coast. A murder has occurred in the small abalone fishing community and Charlie Jardim, a Melbourne prosecuting lawyer is sent to investigate. Though he may be a big drinking lawyer who holes up at the local bar the difference between Charlie's city cultivated ways, his unyielding faith in reason and deferrence to the law, provides the foil for Serong to explore small town politics and the limited reach of the judiciary.
Told in a mix of first person narrative, court room transcripts, and newspaper accounts the story develops steadily, though as it unfurls allegiances and motives among the town folk are never made completely clear. Serong is careful not to evoke undue reader sympathy for any of the main players even as their characters are being rendered with humane depth.
“Legal writing is exacting, but it's exacting in the opposite direction [to writing fiction],” said Serong in an interview with Swellnet last year. “What you're trying to do when you write legally is suppress the human instinct and strive for great accuracy and objectivity. And when you write fiction you generally head in the other direction.”
There are many excellent and exacting passages of writing in Quota. Passages when the writing process flows from penetrating observation to articulate conveyance, none more so than the court scene toward which the novel inexorably heads. It's here that Serong is absolutely in his element and his writing shows, it's rich with nuanced observation of people in pressured situations and the theatrics of those who understand court room rules and customs. Consequently it's here that Serong's human instinct flourishes.