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Posted on 5 Mar 2024 in Fiction | 2 comments

MELISSA LUCASHENKO Edenglassie. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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The new novel from the award-winning author of Too Much Lip entwines Brisbane’s past and present to reveal the impact of colonisation.

As I was reading it, Edenglassie received the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. It is an ambitious novel and as I read I was already certain that Melissa Lucashenko had written a remarkable story of colonialism, displacement and modern Indigenous life. It is both brutal and uplifting, with two love stories, set two centuries apart, at its heart.

Edenglassie opens with Eddie Blanket falling over in front of the Maritime Museum in Brisbane. She ends up in hospital, where she is cared for by her feisty young relative Winona. Dr Johnny, who is treating Eddie and has recently discovered his Indigenous roots, falls for Winona, who staves off his attentions. Granny Eddie is also visited by a journalist, who, recognising her Elder status, wants to write Eddie’s story.

In a parallel story we read of the arrival of white settlers in Moreton Bay in 1840, as observed by Yerrin, a leader of the local Aboriginal people. Fourteen years later, Mulanyin, a young man on the cusp of his initiation, is sent to Yerrin and the Yagara Bora, where he is expected to learn more before returning to his family and his own country.

The boy had always known that he was Gorrie, one of the thousands of citizens who belonged to the five Yugambeh rivers, which fell like wide blue ribbons from the western range. He knew that he had been born a son, a grandson, a brother, a father, an uncle, a grandfather through a web of unbreakable connections, he belonged to everyone amongst his coastal nation. Now the future shimmered like early dawn breaking silver and gold upon the burragurra, for he knew his destiny well.

Mulanyin is also working for the Wickham family, and falls for Nita, their protégée. He dreams of marrying her and returning to his own family by the southern coast. In the meantime, he falls in with Tom Wickham, the family scion, who intends to become a grazier. Mulanyin travels north with Wickham, who has negotiated for land with the tribes there. Mulanyin, an imposing physical figure, becomes a recognisable black man whose presence threatens the status quo as he refuses to bow before the authority of the white men, in particular the colonial police with their Aboriginal trackers.

In modern Brisbane, Eddie is being recognised by politicians who wish to use her story as part of the Bicentenary Week celebrations. Eddie and Winona use the opportunities presented to try and improve their lot. However, Eddie has much more going on – she gradually realises that there is a presence in her hospital room that is demanding justice.

‘Yeah, but he’s gone a bit quiet, cept about what’s owed to him,’ Granny said, rolling her eyes. ‘Be different if he’d tell a person what he wants. I mean he was always full of stories. Jokes, yarns. You’d never shut him up. He’s like a blooming oyster now, compared to back then.’

My life’s not a joke! retorted the ghost, still indistinct in the rear corner. Granny swivelled in bed where she sat and immediately began to topple sideways.

As Mulanyin and Nita’s story moves to its tragic conclusion, Eddie’s big moment looms ever larger as she struggles to right the past. Johnny buys a small sailboat named Edenglassie, a colonial name for early Brisbane, which brings him closer to Winona and plays a large part in the climax of the novel.

Lucashenko has populated her fiction with some real historical figures and some composites, and her characters are developed so strongly that it is easy to laugh along with them, to admire their courage and ache for their pains. The language is delightful and amusing. Eddie is a great character, and whip-smart Winona is fiery and political. I enjoyed the relationship slowly building between Winona and Dr Johnny as Winona explains to him that although he has discovered his Indigenous roots he is not yet a Blak feller. Eddie teases and blags to Dartmouth the journalist in order to achieve the outcomes she wants, as well as lapping up the attention.

If I have a quibble it is that I would have liked more of their story, as the story of Mulanyin is given more space. But the novel is largely about the tragedy of Mulanyin and what could have been, leading to a beautiful climax with a triumphant and moving ending that is the finest I have read for years.

A short time later, the Edenglassie reached the bar where the river transformed into Moreton Bay. Johnny peered up into the rigging, shading his eyes with his hand. From where he was perched on the top of the mast, Mulanyin called out joyfully, greeting the distant islands of the burragurra as his old familiar friends. Winona craned her neck too. When Mulanyin waved down to her, smiling, she had a sudden stab of terrible foreboding.

‘He’s happy now,’ she whispered to Johnny. ‘But what about when he gets to Nerang? When he sees what they’ve done to his country?’

‘I don’t think he’s seeing what we do,’ Johnny reassured her.

This is an epic novel. Lucashenko shows the interconnectivity between the past and the present. There is much going on in this book, and its stories can be read as a treatise on colonialism and its impact on the history of modern Australia. It is almost a shock to read Lucashenko’s acknowledgements at the end and realise that this is a work of fiction, it is so deeply informed by her research.

The sadness for me, reading this novel, is how much Australia has lost in not coming to terms with its bloody history and its failure to acknowledge the Indigenous people and their relationship to this land. Lucashenko, however, gives us courageous and optimistic characters who bring joy to this astounding read.

Melissa Lucashenko Edenglassie UQP Books 2023 PB 320pp $32.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian and you can find him as @larrydlibrarian on Instagram and Threads.

You can buy Edenglassie from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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  1. This excellent novel should be read in conjunction with Killing For Country by David Marr. Both important contributions to the understanding of our nation’s history.

  2. I loved this book too. And yes, agree with your sadness. It resonated for me too that my colonial ancestors had a choice and they chose a path of oppression and slavery and theft instead of negotiation, recognition treaty.