In her latest novel Big rough stones, Margaret Merrilees seems to have done for Australian lesbians what Armistead Maupin did for the American gay community in his Tales of the city series. It is the story, spanning roughly three decades from around 1970s on, of a character named Ro and her lesbian sisterhood in Adelaide. In so doing, it also encompasses some of the feminist activism and sociopolitical concerns of those decades.
Now, Merrilees has appeared here before – with her debut novel The first week (my review) and in my post on her essay about non-indigenous writers writing about indigenous people. I’ll return to this point later …
The novel’s title comes from Miriel Lenore’s poem, “the walls of lesbos”, which is quoted at the beginning of the book. It starts:
to build a lesbian wall
take big rough stones
don’t cut to fit
The poem concludes with the idea that the strength of the wall lies in the combination of the places where the stones touch and the gaps between. This idea perfectly encapsulates the relationships in Big rough stones, because there’s a real sense of a bunch of different individuals who support each other for the long haul. There are points at which they meet. They share political beliefs, for a start, and they share their lives (sometimes as lovers, sometimes in share houses, sometimes in work). But there are also the gaps, those individual differences that either make a community stronger or break it apart. Here, they make it stronger.
Ro, we soon realise, is not the easiest person to live with, not always the most responsible or reliable person, but she’s “sturdy and energetic, descended from a Welsh pit pony and a dour Scot.” She’s idealistic, passionate, and will give things a go. She’s our focal point. The novel is told third person but mostly through her perspective. However, we also get to know several of her friends and lovers, sometimes through her eyes, but sometimes we pop into their heads for a brief while too.
Besides this occasionally shifting third-person point of view, the novel also has an interesting, almost circular, 4-part structure: Now, A while ago, A long time ago, Now. At the novel’s opening – in Now – Ro is in her 60s and learns that she has terminal cancer (so, no spoiler here). We also learn that, at this stage in her life, she wishes she still had someone called Gerry in it. We then move back in her life, eventually reaching “a long time ago” where we meet Gerry and discover why she is no longer in Ro’s life. It’s a sad story. In the final “Now”, Ro is in the terminal stages of her cancer, being cared for by her friends. We see just how strongly that wall has been built. The story reminded me just a bit of Helen Garner’s The spare room – not that Ro tries ineffective alternative medicine, but in the challenges her friends face in caring for a seriously ill person. It isn’t easy.
So, the book is about relationships – lesbian ones, yes, but there’s much that’s universal here too. However, it is also about the times – about political ideals and feminist activism, about the environment and climate change. Several of the women, including Ro, work in a Shelter for abused women. They work as a collective, and we share in some of the struggles of making such arrangements work. We sit in on a collective meeting, after Ro has missed a shift without calling in. There’s discussion and dissension about Ro’s commitment, with one member suggesting this might not be the job for her. Lovely, loyal Maddie speaks up:
I don’t like this. We’ve never been into sacking people or any of that sort of patriarchal shit.’
‘Maybe that’s our problem,’ said Tilda. ‘The place would run a lot more efficiently if we were.’
But this was going a bit too far for the others.
‘No, that’s completely against what we value,’ said the oldest member. ‘People always come first, and that includes workers. It’s up to us to honour Ro’s strengths and figure out how to work with her.’
Ro herself was struck by Tilda’s echo of her own thought. We should have a few more rules, she wanted to say.
She doesn’t say it, though. Instead, she concedes that she was wrong, and offers to work on her relationship with Tilda. An uneasy truce is achieved!
Another quote from the novel that has been used in its promotion provides a good sense of what Ro and her friends were about:
‘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.’
I want to end, however, with Merrilees’ concern about representing indigenous Australians in our stories. Here’s something I quoted from her in my previous post:
To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie. However, for a non-Aboriginal writer to write about Aboriginal people is to run the risk of “appropriating” Aboriginal experience; speaking on behalf of … There’s been too much of that already.
This, as I see it, relates to the issue of truth-telling. There’s the formal truth-telling – via, say, a truth-telling and reconciliation commission – but there’s also the more informal truth-telling that we can all do. Truth-telling is about all Australians coming to a “shared understanding of our history”, which includes “the acceptance of mass killings, incarceration, forced removal from land and forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families”. The now standard welcome or acknowledgement of country statements are part of this.
So, in Big rough stones, Merrilees has taken a sensitive approach. She does not, here, as she did in The first week, have an indigenous character, but she acknowledges indigenous Australians by showing her characters being aware of the “truths”. For example, Alby, one of Ro’s friends gets a job at a mine. Ro is horrified, and says:
‘Shit, Alby. How could you? Mining. Probably on Aboriginal land.’
‘Certainly on Aboriginal land. The whole country is Aboriginal land. This pub is on Aboriginal land.’
True! On another occasion, after a protest in Alice Springs against Pine Gap, Ro ends up in gaol for a night. The cells are disgusting and Ro finds it hard to engage in the political debate about the US base:
The walls were covered in graffiti. The misery and degradation of the previous occupants hung in the air, a miasma, shockingly brutal. The protest about the US base lost its urgency. Here was racism, fundamental, elemental, an Australian truth most of them had never seen before. Not close up. This they should protest about.
She realises that:
She and the others had privilege that no Aboriginal prisoner ever had. They could give up their resistance and walk away any time. And eventually they did.
I think she has hit on a way of not continuing terra nullius but, at the same time, also not appropriating indigenous experience. It may not work in all situations, but here, with politically aware characters, it does.
Fundamentally, Big rough stones is a straightforward, accessible story with a lot of dialogue that keeps the story moving along – but this is not all it is. Like Tales of the city, it offers a realistic, but warm-hearted portrayal of a time and place, with all the attendant personal and political messiness. An engaging read.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this novel.
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.)