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Posted on 21 Jan 2020 in Fiction | 1 comment

MELISSA LUCASHENKO Too Much Lip. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks

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Melissa Lucashenko’s latest novel reveals the impact of history on contemporary Indigenous lives, and richly deserves its Miles Franklin Award.

In telling the truth about the reality of many Aboriginal families’ lives, Melissa Lucashenko has created a narrative that is brilliant both in its sheer literary attainment and for the story she has to tell. It is an important contribution to our nation’s overdue conversation about contemporary Aboriginal lives and richly deserved winning the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary award.

Lucashenko throws her readers straight into the deep end, opening her novel with this newspaper quote confronting us with the reality, too long hidden, of the lived history of many Aborigines:

She was charged with shooting the accused, who in giving evidence against her,  made no secret of what his intentions were towards the woman. She, he said, was only a gin, and he could do what he liked with her.

‘District Court, Criminal Sittings’, Brisbane Telegraph, 31 January 1908

Her vehicle is the troubled, sassy-mouthed Salter family who, perhaps confrontingly for some readers, mostly communicate through the limited vocabulary of anger and verbal abuse, behaviour born of intergenerational poverty, powerlessness and injustice — past and present — suffered at the hands of white society.

In particular focus is Kerry, who, after years of absence, has returned to her home town on the New South Wales north coast as her grandfather, Pop, is dying. Her brother Ken sums up the place as ‘a fucking coma ward’:

Pop in bed with the remote welded to the nags. Mum sits doing her cards and reading about the Second Coming of Christ our Lord, and I’m just about ready to harvest [son] Danny for his organs if the useless prick doesn’t move his arse soon. Talk about Limpet Dreaming.

Clearly this is not a happy homecoming. Kerry is grieving over the recent loss of her girlfriend Allie, whose imprisonment for armed robbery ended their relationship. She is farewelling her dying grandfather and fending off the guilt trip her mother, Pretty Mary, is laying on her — guilt she genuinely feels over her long absence. ‘We was hoping you might have made it down for Pop’s birthday,’ Mary tells her. ‘For a change. In the circumstances.’

Kerry is riding a Harley Davison motorcycle she has stolen, which means she must weave and dodge her way through back roads, constantly in fear of being stopped by the police and facing the horror of a possible prison sentence. To add to her confusion, despite her lesbianism she is sexually attracted to white man, Steve, who her mother refers to as ‘your mulaga’. Steve has complicated the relationship by falling in love with her.

To add to these disasters, Kerry and her family discover plans to develop a local sacred site and, even worse, to build a prison on it. This causes Kerry to abandon her plan to ‘fuck off out of here’ after Pop’s funeral and to stay and fight the development.

At times the reader may wonder just how credible it is for one person to be embroiled in so many life dilemmas at once. Or is this simply the reality of the disorganised, unstructured life that goes with poverty?  Kerry’s longing for a better life, and the limited options open to her, are starkly portrayed when she reflects on her current situation:

The Harley was pretty much the only thing in Durrongo that had any bloody style to it, the only part of her life that did not scream poverty and desperation. It was the only thing that said to Kerry each morning that she had made it out of Shitsville alive, that she didn’t belong forever in the godforsaken dump she had fled at seventeen.

Kerry runs to deal with the anger constantly boiling away within her:

Had they [her high school coaches] realised that all that running was a bulwark against the taunts slung about so casually at Patto High? Nigger, nigger, pull the trigger. Kerry would sneer at the white faces mouthing the words – Abo, black bitch, boongand picture their owners wheezing on the edge of the track as she floated past triumphant, her giant banner reading: Whatever maggots.

Despite the verbal abuse and incipient violence that underpins the family’s interactions, Lucashenko creates genuinely laugh-out-loud episodes that relieve the underlying tensions in the story. For example, the thoughts of the town’s part-Asian policeman when contemplating the town’s statue of the Unknown Soldier:

He squinted up at the statue bowing sorrowfully over its inverted rifle. Unlike most small towns, Patterson hadn’t had an Unknown Soldier until 1980, the year Zayan Damali took a triple dose of mushrooms at a Channon dance party, and applied for a regional arts grant while high as a kite. The bronze ANZAC he’d sculpted was exactly three millimetres broader in the nose and fuller in the lips than standard, and had been bothering white Patterson ever since.

Too Much Lip, with its engaging cast of troubled but quirky characters and its accessible tone and wit will broaden non-Indigenous readers’ understanding of the reality of many contemporary Aboriginal lives, and the shameful history that lies behind them.

Lucashenko herself represents the current generation of Indigenous writers emboldened to share their stories, however dark and painful, which reveal to us the deep humanity and resilience of an amazing culture unacknowledged by white Australia for too long.

Melissa Lucashenko Too Much Lip UQP 2018 PB 328pp $29.95

Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.

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

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

1 Comment

  1. Superb review of an obviously rivetting book by a very sharp writer.
    A reminder, if you need it, of what a nasty place Australia can be.
    Sad to say!