Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2018

Too Much Lip, by Melissa Lucashenko #BookReview

As Bundjalung woman Melissa Lucashenko’s latest novel Too Much Lip draws towards its climax, Black Superman counsels his sister not to abandon her family.  And he says these words that are a metaphor for unfinished business in Australian Indigenous affairs:

‘Thing is, you run now, after last night, and it’ll haunt you forever.  You can go as far away as you like, but the past always comes along for the ride.’ (p.255)

As I write this, events in Canberra are drawing to a climax too, and it’s possible that by the time I publish this review, Australia might have a prime minister who boycotted the formal apology to Australia’s Stolen Generations in 2007.  The fact that there are adequate numbers of parliamentarians who consider such a man an acceptable candidate is a matter of shame.  It is a matter of shame for the party hacks that he continued to be preselected afterwards, and it is a matter of shame that his constituents voted him back in too.  I am noting this here because it’s so relevant to the themes of this novel: that Australia needs to face up to, acknowledge, and apologise for its past treatment of its First Nations so that Indigenous people don’t give up on healing and so that our ‘family’ will include all Australians, of all colours, cultures and histories.

Yet while Too Much Lip has a solemn message that needs to be heard, it is often a very funny book.  Its central character Kerry is a wise-cracking hoot of a woman.  As the story begins she rides into town on her stolen Harley, enjoying being the blackfella du jour for the astounded locals.  On the run for her part in a stupid failed armed robbery, she has come home because her Pop is dying, but her homecoming leaves her seething with resentment at the favoured place of sons in her family.

Black Superman, making a success of his life in faraway Sydney, can do no wrong though he visits less often than she does, and her other brother Ken is a violent wastrel who abuses his teenage son. It never ceases to amaze her how men could flap their gums and have absolutely no doubt that women would hang on their every word.  That everything coming out of their mouths was pure genius.  And her mother, a reformed alcoholic who supplements her Centrelink payments with tarot-readings, is on her case immediately, demanding that she change her ways:

‘I did change my ways,’ Kerry retorted, coming to life and putting fresh coffees on the table. ‘That’s why I’m down here and not in Brisbane Women’s.’  She shook her head, wondering in what possible universe her mother might not have reams of useless, generic free advice to dish out.  Every day, every waking hour, never telling you what you’d done right, only where you were going wrong, and when to pull up your socks quick smart.’ (p. 49)

And although her sister Donna who went missing as a teenager nearly 20 years ago is never mentioned now, Kerry has never heard anything good about her either…

Much to her surprise, because she’s broken hearted because her lover Allie has been locked up for five years in the Brisbane Women’s Prison, Kerry finds herself attracted to a good-looking dugai fellow i.e. not just a man, but a white one at that!  The dialogue between these two is hilarious, since Kerry is always engaged in what she calls cultural deprogramming to bring him up to speed on Bundjalung culture.

Martina, a real estate agent temporarily deployed to Patterson, who tells herself that Martina will decide who comes to Durrongo Shire and the circumstances in which they come, also finds herself strangely attracted to the same man, a hitchhiker she’s seen en route:

Boyfriend.  She needed a new boyfriend; that was the problem.  It was weeks since she’d had anything approaching good sex. And eligible men were as thin on the ground as talking dogs.  Oh, the offers were there, there was never any shortage of offers. She had been confidentially informed by Kylie within forty-eight hours of hitting town, that, direct quote, all the boys in the office wanted to chuck one in ya, unquote. Her skin had crawled.  God save me from rural realtors. No, that hitchhiker in the hat was the first bloke she’d noticed having any kind of style in Durrongo, the first man she’d seen without either a ragged Bintang singlet or a non-ironic Akubra. (p. 57)

(I must admit: being a city-girl who rarely ventures beyond the bitumen, I’d like to know how a non-ironic Akubra is worn…)

The plot emerges quickly.  The family plans to bury Pop on an island with important family history and the council plans to flog it for development as a private prison.  The family gears up to fight the proposal but the cards are stacked against them.  The mayor is the grandson of a brutal pastoralist who maimed Pop with a stockwhip, and the local policeman is descended from that same family that had forced the Salters to work for them on land that had been theirs.  And although the Salters are better off than most because they own their own home, ramshackle though it might be, the legal expenses are almost insurmountable: the only one with a job is Black Superman and Ken drinks most of his mother’s pension, not to mention appropriating the money they received for funeral expenses.

Lucashenko portrayal of a dysfunctional family is confronting, but Elder Uncle Richard doesn’t subscribe to Ken’s idea of days for blood and flame and retribution.  He acknowledges that

Grief comes out in all sorts of strange ways, son, but ya can’t be burning houses down. (p.269)

Black Superman tells the kid he’s fostering that

‘There isn’t always someone to blame…[…] Sometimes things just happen.  You move on.’ (p277)

However, that doesn’t mean ignoring the trauma of the past:

‘Yes’, said Uncle Richard, his voice grave.  ‘We should have listened better.  A crime was committed against a child.  And someone should pay.  But when the criminal’s dead and buried, it’s not always so easy, bud.  Sometimes an apology’s the only way. (p.294)

Confronted by refusal to reconcile, Kerry sneers that it’s not possible to build a time machine or to take up the old bastard’s ashes to spit on them, but Uncle Richard intervenes:

‘History’s made us all hard, bub,’ interjected Uncle Richard swiftly.  ‘We had to grow hard just to survive, had to get as hard as that old rock sitting there.  But the hardness that saved us, it’s gonna kill us if it goes on much longer. People ain’t rocks.’ (p. 295)

With great characterisation which includes a helpful ghost and a talking shark, plus a compelling plot which includes a dash of romance, Too Much Lip laces grim realism with witty dialogue, and a message of hope and future reconciliation.  This is Lucashenko’s best book yet.

Melissa Lucashenko is of Russian/Ukrainian and Aboriginal Goorie heritage, identifying with the Ygambeh/Bundjalung people of the Byron Bay hinterland around Ocean Shores.

Author: Melissa Lucashenko
Title: Too Much Lip
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2018
ISBN: 9780702259968
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from Fishpond: Too Much Lip

 


Responses

  1. I think Mick Dodson’s black Akubra is ironic. A non-ironic Akubra might be worn just to keep the sun off, eh. Actually I have an old one, which is probably about 80 per cent ironic but useful on winter days in the bush when the UV rating is still high.

    Thanks for the review. I’ll add the book to my list.

    • So those politicians whose natural habitat is the city who wear Akubras – that would be non-ironic?

  2. Ha! Maybe the 80/20 division applies there too: 80 per cent ingratiating and 20 per cent practical. The member for Wentworth, as we know, has a beautiful farm in the Hunter Valley to which he can retreat to lick his wounds — and wear his Akubra if he’s so inclined. Real farmers, of course, give their hats no thought until they need to buy a new one. (I’m remembering my grandfather.) They don’t leave the house with a bare head — which is not only non-ironic but unconscious.

    Isn’t it funny how a throwaway line can start a conversation?

    • Indeed. What a day it’s been. If only we had leaders of some integrity…

  3. I am looking forward to reading this book, and will come back when I have! As always you’ve beaten me to it. I think it will be a few months before I get to it.

  4. Insightful review Lisa. The passages you quoted from Melissa Lucashenko’s novel provides folk wisdom- cautionary tales, adages, communal and personal values for family members and friends to draw from.

    I’ve listened to audio interviews featuring the author where she discussed the importance of authentic voice, ancestral history, cultural knowledge, and social and political as it pertains to Aboriginal identity and community. She also expressed claiming the ‘official story’ of Australian Aborigines’ life experiences from people (particularly some non-indigenous writers) who perpetuate stereotypes, misinterpretations of indigenous populations and culture.

    I read Lucashenko’s previous novel Mullumbimby. I had some difficulty following some parts of the story but I got a good sense of her humor and concerns for healing fractured familial and personal relationships and sustaining local communities.

    I look forward to reading Too Much Lip soon.

    • Yes, I would say that both Mullumbimby and this one are about mending fractured relationships … there’s more to this one than I’ve been able to cover here, but for example, she notes some programs to help young men with their toxic behaviours.

  5. The saddest thing about John Howard was that there was not the least irony in his completely unnatural hat wearing. He had no idea. Very funny to be in outback Queensland and see a farming family come into town with even the smallest boy in an enormous hat (more likely a Stetson than an Akubra). My old hat not an Akubra but it does keep the sun off – I find it difficult to go outside without something on my head (a beanie today).

    Sounds like a good book.

    • I think The Spouse has an Akubra knocking about in the back of the car from the days when he was pruning grapes on the family farm, but at the moment he’s wearing (un-ironically) a tweedy Dublin cap. (Protection from the sun not being something we need in Melbourne at the moment!)

  6. I loved Mullumbimby. This one will go to the top of the TBR pile.

    • Yes, I think every Lucashenko novel is a must-read. I have to find time to read Steam Pigs one of these days…

  7. […] see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


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