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Posted on 7 Mar, 2013 in Fiction | 5 comments

MELISSA LUCASHENKO Mullumbimby. Reviewed by James Tierney

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mullumbimbyThis sure, funny novel of an Indigenous woman and her land is alive with the tensions of new ways of belonging.

Meaning is a messy act. Its fusing of memory, testimony and narrative is a selective one that shapes cadence and line out of life’s awkward arrhythmia. Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth novel, Mullumbimby, works at the guts of meaning: how we belong to each other and how we might belong to a place.

For most, the New South Wales far north coast means the narrow high-tide beach and tourist-hungry shops of Byron Bay, but 20 kilometres inland is the self-styled ‘Biggest Little Town in Australia’. Mullumbimby draws its name from the local Bundjalung language, meaning a place before a small hill. Like so much Australian geography, the Indigenous name has, flotsam-like, been retained while so much of the culture that gave it birth was swept away. Melissa Lucashenko, in this sure, funny and quietly modulated novel, looks beyond the street sign to an Indigenous presence, broken but enduring.

Jo Breen is a Goorie, an Indigenous woman from the north coast, whose job of edging a lawnmower around the graves of white settlers  both long and recently dead  at the local cemetery gives her the means to purchase a house and land a little out of town for herself and her unwilling teenage daughter. The significance of owning a small piece of jagan, her ancestral lands, is deeply felt:

… from where she stood in the middle of the big paddock, she could take off running in any direction and be winded before she’d left her own land.

That was something for a Goorie woman to think about; something to hold onto and savour.

Jo’s developing relationship with her parcel of land is in one sense a salutary nod to the clearing, from the mid-19th century on, of the once dense lowland rainforest. The Big Scrub was:

… doomed by the axes of men who – months or years from anything they thought of as home – had tried to slash and log and burn their way into freedom here.

As the dugai cedar-getters and farmers cleared and fenced, the forests of white booyung and red cedar of the Big Scrub were replaced by grasslands, camphor laurel and lantana. Jo energetically clears the introduced species, fences the grassland for her beloved colt, Comet, but a friend’s question, ‘Don’t you get lonely here on your own? rattles her. Soon enough, Jo spots a man leaving the town’s bookshop and thinks to herself, ‘Good looking men are nothing but trouble.’

Twoboy and his brother Lazarus are in town to launch a Native Title claim on the local valley and Jo, initially reluctant, falls into Twoboy’s arms, where she finds both some love and some trouble. As the novel progresses, it darkens and deepens, as the tensions between Jo and Twoboy and their different certainties about the land clash and fray.

Twoboy’s sense of belonging to the land of his ancestors is both deepened and troubled by dispossession and distance. Jo is different. Her belonging to the land wasn’t entirely stripped from her, although, damaged by her upbringing and a divorce, she lacks a mob, a people whose knowing makes intimate sense. But her deeply-felt attachment to the yarraman (the colt) and the land shows us how different kinds of stewardship can convert a story about the past into a way of living for the future.

Lucashenko bursts the myth that Indigenous culture must present a unified face to Australia in order to be strong. The balance of voices here is a careful one, born of deep respect and a clear eye.

Mullumbimby is also a book with more than a shy hope of the spiritual. After a fall in the high country, Jo hears the hills:

… singing to her … On and on the chant hummed, now rising and now falling. Like wind in the high treetops. Like waves slapping a shoreline over and over.

Lucashenko keeps the pace of her narrative even and often slides from conversation to conversation without it ever feeling overly expository. The novel’s third-person voice is closely aligned to Jo’s and there’s a laconic directness of expression born of being among family and old friends. My only quibble is the occasional tendency to use unnecessary adverbs or adjectives when neither the sense nor the flow of the narrative demands it.

A place is granted to us by precedent, law and language. The soft pop and tongue roll of the Bundjalung language is essential to this story as these Indigenous words turn readers away from the commonplace and ask us to think again. Mullumbimby, a country town like so many on Australia’s east coast, is my home town, but I am not Indigenous. The gift of this novel is that it looks beyond the recognisable and takes us on to wonder. That is something to savour.

Melissa Lucashenko Mullumbimby, UQP, 2013, 296pp, PB, $29.95

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

5 Comments

  1. If James Tierney thinks Lukashenko’s character, Jo, bought a house and land just outside Mullumbimby on the proceeds of wages for mowing grass for the council, it must be a long time since he looked at property prices or wages in Byron Shire. A closer read may have made a better review. The book should delight anyone who enjoys a thriller, a love story or a tale about motherhood, horses and female friendship written with humour and insight or who can recognise its setting and some thinly veiled local characters. More important and far rarer is the glimpse the text allows of contemporary Indigenous Australian culture, not just dialogue peppered with Bundjalung and Aboriginal English (though that is an education in itself), but an exposure of what the Goorie characters hold dear: concern for their children’s welfare and happiness and for a deep and intricate relationship with land. This relationship extends beyond an idea of ownership, either by fences and title deeds or by dugai recognition of Native Title. It unfolds with every aspect of the land mentioned: details of the behaviour of birds and animals, every creek and waterhole, the ocean, every contour and view, storms, heat and incessant rain are written with knowledge and care. This sometimes needs an adjective or two. Given that Lukashenko’s publisher required the culling of 17,000 words, unnecessary ones are likely to have gone. I didn’t notice any. I keep thinking of more people to phone up and advise to buy it.

  2. Thank you Rhonda for your considered response to both Lucashenko’s wonderful novel and my review.

    I agree with most of your comments. You write beautifully of the all-encompassing nature of the indigenous relationship with land, its animals and its seasons.

    I do, however, stand by my sense that, while there are many passages of great beauty and emotion, in places the syntax of the novel is unnecessarily cluttered.
    I see this is a minor flaw and I have no hesitation in also recommending the novel.

    Thanks also for your useful corrective on Byron Shire real estate prices.

    • Thank you James. The character, Jo, bought her land and house from the proceeds of a divorce while the opposite happened to Lukashenko. She lost her beautiful house, land and horses following a divorce (interview Spectrum March 9–10).

  3. Hi James, I’ve read it too now, and I must admit that I wondered about Byron Bay real estate as well – though maybe on the hinterland, and with an offstage brother helping out with the purchase, we can take it that Jo’s ownership of this land was credible.
    I do think it’s just as well the book was pruned by 17,000 words, any longer would have been too long IMO.
    I like your point about bursting the myth indigenous unity and strength – there is a painful honesty about this novel.
    My review is at http://anzlitlovers.com/2013/04/25/mullumbimby-by-melissa-lucashenko/ and I’ve linked to yours here as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby | A Long, Slow Goodbye - [...] You can read it here. [...]
  2. Mullumbimby, by Melissa Lucashenko | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog - [...] You can read an interview with the author at the SMH, Daniel Browning’s thoughts about the novel at Radio National’s Books …
  3. March 2013 Roundup: Diversity | Australian Women Writers Challenge - [...] Purple Threads, a gentle and meandering novel about the narrator’s childhood and aunties.  James Tierny from the Newtown Review …

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