Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 5, 2018

Big Rough Stones (2018), by Margaret Merrilees

Margaret Merrilees’ second novel sneaked up on me.   I wasn’t expecting the emotional punch that it delivered because I’ve been avoiding books about grief and the blurb suggested that Big Rough Stones was going to be a humorous reappraisal of 70s feminism by its older and wiser adherents:

They surged across King William Street, around and up onto the bronze Boer War horseman at the corner of North Terrace. Ro linked arms with the woman next to her. ‘Take the toys from the boys’, they sang. The hero almost disappeared under a festoon of women, but clung valiantly to his rifle, bronze upper lip stiff. It was his horse who looked most horrified.
Meet Ro at thirty-something. She is committed to cures for every ill from monogamy to orange armpit fungus. Her ambitions are passionate, her energy boundless, her intentions generally good …
Thirty years later, are the edges any smoother?
‘You thought feminism would stop violence against women,’ said Julia. ‘And that would stop war. And stop people trashing the Earth. You tried.’
‘Not alone,’ said Ro modestly. ‘I had help.’
This is a story of community, friendship, sisterhood, and the coming of age that continues all our lives.

Big Rough Stones is in four parts, bookended by the story of Ro and her relationships in the present (both titled ‘Now’), and those in the past, in parts titled ‘A While Ago’ and ‘A Long Time Ago.’  Ro is a lesbian who has embraced a lifestyle of collaborative living and working, and of activism in a variety of causes from radical feminism to protests at Pine Gap.  She and her friends are not discreet couples living a suburban life of monogamy – they are, for example, against gay marriage because as far as they are concerned marriage is about oppression.  They go to conferences about lesbianism and sexuality, and they travel long distances to go to social events that are exclusively for lesbians.

But although Big Rough Stones is a story about lesbian life, (and often very funny) it’s a story for all of us because it also taps into other fears that beset those of us of a certain age.  We fear the warming planet and the lives our children will lead as the weather becomes more and more extreme.  After a long day sandbagging against a rogue flood coming across Semaphore Rd in Adelaide, Ro, the central character, asks her friends if they could have done more:

‘Okay,’ she said, propping her feet on the chair opposite.  ‘Here’s the question.  Could we have stopped this?’
‘Stopped what?’ asked Alby.
Ro waved at the window.  ‘This weather.’
Alby snorted and threw a wet tea towel at her.  Alby reserved flights of fancy for the theatre, and preferred the rest of her life straightforward.
‘Not the flood,’ said Ro, dodging.  ‘The whole thing.’
Julia scooped up the tea towel and threw it in the sink.  ‘Watch it.  I mopped that floor.’
‘What could we have stopped?’ Alby growled.  ‘What whole thing?’
‘Climate change.  Could we have stopped climate change?’ (p.7)

For a while there, our generation did think we could change the world…

1970s feminism in Australia was a broad church. Not all agendas encompassed wanting to dismantle the patriarchy in radical ways or to exclude men like some of the characters in this book, but there were lots of things we wanted to change. And wherever we come from on the political spectrum, we’ve all had to adapt, change, compromise and put aside rueful disappointments.

The struggle with ageing parents is accompanied by the worry about how we will manage caring for ourselves and each other when old age threatens the loss of our independence.

Alby wasn’t the only one drawn back to Adelaide by ageing parents.  Other friends turned up, including two members of Ro’s old household.  Petra’s parents were managing at home, but their situation was precarious.  She was visiting more often from Alice Springs to keep an eye on them.  Mikki was making a rare visit from London because her mother was ill.  Ro and Sue, both still living in Adelaide, cooked dinner for the visitors at Ro’s place and the four of them talked exactly as they would have thirty years earlier, though the subject matter had changed.

The first topic was parents.  Ro was lucky, she knew.  So far her mother was at home and independent.  But the women weren’t concerned only for their parents.  Like Alby, they were wondering how they would get on themselves, who would look after them in their old age, find the best residential care, organise pensions and healthcare. (p.22)

Like the characters in this novel, many of us now feel a deep anxiety about the increasing inequality that threatens to derail social harmony. We don’t want to see the emergence of the working poor like there is in America and China, but we seem powerless to stop it.  So while Big Rough Stones is often laugh-out-loud funny, it has sobering moments too.

And it was when I read how Ro felt when her mother died, I had to put the book aside for 24 hours to regain my equanimity.

Ro was devastated. Writing became irrelevant, wrong, and she stopped altogether. She felt stupid, as though everyone else had understood something that she hadn’t. All the platitudes, the sentimental murmurings, you only have one mother, the one you can always turn to, mother and child – the sacred bond. Everything Ro had despised and opposed rose up against her in a fearful wave. She trembled on the crest, alone with the horrifying possibility that it might all be true.

She was incoherently and wildly angry. Mothers can’t die, she wanted to bellow. And it made no difference what the age the child was when the mother went. Ro wanted to lie in the middle of the footpath drumming her heels and screaming. Her mother’s death was a personal affront, underlining the fact that death is not only real, but universal. Ro herself would also die. In fact, with no parents remaining to shelter her from the void, she was suddenly at the head of the queue.

Up until now, death had seemed to be accidental, a matter of bad luck. But clearly it was not bad luck. It was inexorable. Inescapable. Ro as taken aback by her own reaction. In recent years she had been on much better terms with her mother, but she had never imagined that Elsa’s death would be shattering.

With both parents dead, no one to need her, no one to feed her, Ro had to accept that she was mortal. (p.28)

That’s it. That’s it exactly. It’s not just the loss and the conversations that you can never have, it’s that ever-present consciousness of one’s own mortality, and brooding about the future…

There was more: Ro’s reflections about her mother mirror mine in so many ways because whether straight or gay, our generation of women challenged what had gone before and often that looked like criticism. And many mothers of 1970s feminists were strongly critical of their children ‘neglecting’ the domestic responsibilities. Negotiating those mother-daughter relationships in a climate like that was hard.

The blurber is right: coming of age isn’t just something that happens to adolescents.

Author: Margaret Merrilees
Title: Big Rough Stones
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781743055526
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond:Big Rough Stones and good bookstores everywhere.


  1. Excellent review Lisa, and I can understand how that passage was a real trigger. Although I still have my Mum with us, she’s the last of that generation. We have baggage (big time!) and as my experience of 1970s feminism also put me a bit at odds with her outlook, I think I can empathise a lot. It doesn’t take much for her to get under my skin – if I’m not wearing my wedding ring when I visit, for example, because it’s hot and my fingers have puffed a bit she has to ask why. I mean, FFS!!! I felt like I had a bit of that coming of age thing when my dad died 3 years ago – not much prepares you for this, does it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, sadly, not a thing. It is nearly three years now since my mother died, and just over a year since my father, and if anything it feels worse. Just the other day I was talking about a kitchen appliance, and I couldn’t remember when we first had one. Such a trivial thing, but there was no one to ask…
      You feel as if a piece of your past has been excised and you don’t quite know who you are.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review summed it up perfectly that very particular relationship of mother and daughter. My own mother died 17years ago and that event changed my life profoundly which continues of course. So many questions and no answers. I hope my relationship with my daughters will benefit from that loss and that I can convey important stories to them. I think it was Virginia Woolf who said that women know themselves through their mothers. I do understand your feelings of loss when that close relationship has been severed. My own family of origin has never been the same but that’s another complex story.


    • Thank you Fay:)
      I think that Merrilees has done a great job of demonstrating that complexity. The relationship of her characters is complicated by the mother not really understanding that her daughter is gay or what that means, but the issue is the same: a parent with certain expectations and beliefs about what her child will be, being confounded by alternatives that she didn’t expect. I have seen this so often with fathers too: so many of them seem to think that their sons should be carbon copies of themselves, liking the same sport, going into the same profession or taking over the family business.
      There would be a whole lot less angst if we all just accepted our children’s choices, but of course it’s easier said than done.


  3. That period say 1965-1975 really was a time of big ideas. With hindsight we can see we didn’t carry them through. Our liberal society, with welfare for all and free education etc etc seemed inviolate and we backed off, settled into middle class comfort while the Right regathered its forces and now here we are with C19th inequality, health and education budgets directed towards the already well off, and massive climate change just as we predicted but did nothing to forestall.


    • Oh, I don’t think our generation had to carry the flag forever. It was up to our kids to join in and do their bit – and they (mostly) haven’t.


  4. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this novel. […]


  5. […] Big Rough Stones by Meg Merrilees […]


  6. […] Merrilees has gone on from this impressive debut with other books, the most recent of which is Big Rough Stones […]


  7. […] The Weekend is a welcome return to form for Charlotte Wood. The unforgiving, hard-edged, bleak anger of The Natural Way of Things is replaced by the subtle explorations of human frailty that I so admired in her previous novels: The Submerged Cathedral, (2004); The Children (2007) and Animal People (2011).  However, in The Weekend, Wood’s focus is not on the claims of family but on the enduring bonds of female friendship, (a theme also explored in exquisite and painful clarity by Margaret Merrilees in Big Rough Stones). […]


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