Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2012

Love Like Water (2008), by Meme McDonald

In my reading experience, love across the racial divide is a topic not much explored in Australian literature.  What is remarkable about Love Like Water is the way it unpacks the ideal that race does not matter, and reveals the misunderstandings that arise from the cultural gulf between Black and White Australia.  McDonald shows that racism does make race matter.  It puts relationships at risk because it makes everything about such relationships difficult – and that is so whether the racism is overt or covert; whether it derives from hatred, guilt, fear or ‘pragmatism’; whether it is casual or unintended, or whether it is born of ignorance or from resentment.   What is inspirational about this book is that it shows that there can be good will on both sides, and it offers hope that love can indeed transcend the barriers.

Set in the 1980s, the story is set in the symbolic heart of our country, Alice Springs in Central Australia, 440 km northeast of Uluru.  The Alice has a population of about 30,000 of whom about 20% are Aboriginal.  The Central Arrernte People are the traditional owners of the Alice Springs area but for social and religious reasons, and because of the town’s location and the services offered, The Alice is visited by Aboriginal Peoples from all over Central Australia and elsewhere.  The White population is transient too, with ‘blow-ins’ on short-term contracts coming from all over the country and beyond.  Tourism (mainly because of The Rock) dominates the economy but mining and pastoral industries are important too.

Into this mix come four main characters in their twenties: Cathy, a pastoralist’s daughter, escaping bereavement of all kinds; Margie, a good-time city girl out to have fun; Sarah, a well-meaning but know-it-all theatre-activist from Down South; and Jay, an urbanised Aboriginal DJ from saltwater country in Queensland, searching for optimism.  The young women share a house: Margie and Cathy have been BFFs since school and read it each other like books while Sarah makes three into a crowd.  The inevitable friction that goes with share-housing is exacerbated when Sarah and Cathy are attracted to the same man – Jay.

McDonald carefully contrasts Cathy’s intensity with Sarah’s superficially happy-go-lucky approach to relationships.  Sarah’s idealism doesn’t extend to nurturing a relationship with a housemate so obviously in emotional pain – she attacks Cathy for ‘stealing Aboriginal land’ and makes demands that she ameliorate her guilt.  But when it comes to flirting with Jay, Sarah is relaxed and easy-going.  Where Cathy is painfully conscious of causing offence at every turn and – so used to silences in her family home – can barely string a sentence together, Sarah is an easy conversationalist.  Jay is at a loose end in a town where he is the ultimate outsider because he has to wait for local Aborigines to make him welcome, so he finds Sarah’s generous friendship relaxing, even though he knows that for Sarah, friendship across the colour bar is symbolic of her belief that she isn’t racist.  Sarah thinks that having an Aboriginal boyfriend is a way of absolving guilt.  Not realising that Jay and Cathy have briefly met and felt an instantaneous attraction, she tells Cathy that she should do it too.

The narration moves back and forth across Jay’s, Margie’s and Cathy’s perspective, revealing the extent of their cultural confusions.  Margie blunders into pastoral life at a B&S ball without knowing anything of the snobberies that underlie pastoral society.  Will her impulsive romance with Billy survive?  Her vintage clothes from the OpShop are unlikely to cut it with the pearls and R.M. Williams outfit crowd and we all know that newcomers can live in the bush for decades and still be considered outsiders.   Perhaps the shortage of brides for outback Australian males will make Cathy’s hope that just being yourself will be enough for Margie.  (I wonder if anyone has written a novel exploring the Australian Women’s Weekly’s Find a Farmer a Wife campaign yet? I wonder about the longevity of the ensuing relationships…)

But the main focus of the story is the way Cathy and Jay blunder in and out of each other’s lives without having any understanding of the complexities.   Cathy has had to leave the home she loves (see my Sensational Snippet) because the drought has drained family finances and because the property will automatically go to her brother because he’s male.  Naïvely, she tried to avert the inevitable departure through marriage to a local but he killed himself in a stupid crop-dusting stunt that went wrong.   Impoverished or not, her family are what passes for the upper echelons of society in outback Australia, and so Cathy has to elevate her job as a barmaid into a career in tourism with prospects for a management position.  The pub where she works, with its clientele carefully sorted by the enigmatic publican Max into three separate bars, provides the backdrop for an assortment of characters from her own class, all of whom reinforce the confronting reality that a relationship with an Aboriginal is as unacceptable today as it was in Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.  (The nastiest example of this is when Jay is chatted up by a woman who thinks he’s African, but gets up and walks away without a word when he says he’s an Aborigine from Cairns.)

Jay is a wonderful creation who exemplifies McDonald’s familiarity with Aboriginal people.  Winner of the prestigious Ros Bower Award for an outstanding, life-long contribution to community arts and cultural development, Meme McDonald has forged a productive and inspirational literary relationship with Boori Monty Pryor which has obviously informed the understandings she depicts in Love Like Water.  She shows the daily humiliations, and Jay’s refusal to be a victim.  She shows the way that Jay’s tolerant public face is how he chooses to transcend the way he is treated, the way he can subvert White assumptions with his careful choice of clothing and his temperance, and the way he manages the anger that he chooses to suppress, day after day after day.  She also reveals the tragedy of Aboriginal suicide that has ravaged his family and his ambivalence about home and the hopelessness that mars his community.

The dialogue is sharp and realistic, as conversations bounce around in witty exchanges full of slang and references to popular culture.  But there are also vivid word-pictures of the town and the outback to contrast the lives of the haves and the have-nots in this arid landscape.

Love Like Water is a terrific book.  It was shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers in 2008, (definitely YA, there are sensual love scenes) and was Highly Commended for the Christina Stead Award in 2007.

Love Like Water was reviewed at the January Magazine and there are numerous enthusiastic reviews by teachers on the Allen and Unwin website. There is also a brief review at The Age, but – online at least –  this book seems not to have had the kind of critical attention or wide readership it deserves. I wonder if this is because it’s been marketed as YA?

Do you know any other Australian books which transcend the colour bar in exploring relationships?

Author: Meme McDonald
Title: Love Like Water
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2008
ISBN: 9781741756388
Source: Kingston Library

Availability: Fishpond: Love Like Water

PS I will be discussing this book with the author at [Untitled] the Stonnington Literary festival on November 17th, click the link for more details.


  1. Thanks for appreciating and reviewing this book. Not much US literature as perceptive on the topic. I hope I can find a copy over here..


    • I wonder why that would be? From what I’ve gathered from afar, it seems to me that it would be a natural topic for literature both in the US and the UK where – in TV and film at least, people of colour mix freely in all sorts of contexts. Surely some of them would fall in love!


      • I have no answer, but I have been pondering your question. Here at least it the issue is still so hot that it would be hard to write about without a harsh response from someone. We aren’t over the rhetoric used to fight integration, “They may equal but would you want your daughter to marry one?” And black women get lots of pressure to put race before gender and be loyal to black men. Our race relations back to slavery are embedded with sexual meanings.


        • I guess there’s a lot of unresolved hurt that gets in the way.


  2. The first one I ever read was Coonardoo, written back in the the late 1920s … though I’m not sure you’d say it “transcends” the colour bar. I wonder if any of Anita Heiss’s books do? I suspect she might. I have one of her novels in my tbr now.

    I suspect the YA tag would have something to do with its lack of wider recognition. I tend to avoid YA unless I’ve heard something about it crossing the YA-Adult boundary. I know of Meme Macdonald through her relationship with Boori Monty Prior but really didn’t know much of her works.


    • I really, really must read Coonardoo, and Anita Heiss’s fiction too. But first I want to read her “Am I Black Enough for You?’ which I bought in the wake of THAT court case…


      • Yes, I want to read that too .. but I chose one of her novels because part of it is set in Canberra and there aren’t a lot of novels that are. It’s also about indigenous art. Still, the memoir is calling. Coonardoo was wonderful when I read it … but that was decades ago. I’d like to read it again.


  3. Alex Miller portrays love across the racial divide in Journey to the Stone Country, a great novel in that regard. Coal Creek excellent too.


    • Yes, you’re right, I’d forgotten that. And *blush* I still haven’t read Coal Creek – I bought it the week it was released and … *rueful frown* I keep getting side tracked!


  4. PS: I’ve added Love like water to the TBR!


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