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Melissa Lucashenko, Too much lip (#BookReview)

March 22, 2019

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipMelissa Lucashenko’s title for her latest novel Too much lip conveys a lot about what she is trying to do here. Superficially, the title refers to protagonist Kerry’s refusal (or inability) “to swallow her opinions”, but there are layers to the title which reflect the layers in the novel. Kerry is female and indigenous, and she is lippy, which gets her into trouble, sometimes rightly because she’s not always sensible and measured in her responses, but sometimes there’s a political layer. Sometimes she has something relevant to say but because she’s a woman, or because she’s indigenous, or because, “truesgod”, she’s a woman and indigenous, her “lippiness” is ignored or put down. I’d venture to say – and I don’t think this is a long bow – that this political layer extends to imply that all indigenous people can be seen by white Australians as having “too much lip”. It is this clever, wicked multilayering in Too much lip that makes it such an engrossing and confronting book to read.

Essentially, Too much lip is a contemporary story about an indigenous family living in the small fictional country town of Durrongo in Bundjalung country, in northeast New South Wales. The family struggles to keep it together – and, as the book progresses, we come to see why. And it’s no surprise: colonial dispossession, the massacres, the stolen children policies, not to mention the ongoing racism, result in poverty and dysfunction, in unemployment, drug-taking, violence and withdrawal from wider society. Lucashenko does not shy from exposing violence and conflict within the novel’s indigenous community but she also makes clear that the cause can be found in long-standing, intergenerational traumas experienced by the community – as individuals and as a group.

Now this might all sound very earnest, but it’s not. This is a ripping read with a strong plot about vibrant, beautifully differentiated characters. After a somewhat mysterious opening chapter whose import is not clear until well into the novel, we meet protagonist Kerry, the 34-year-old daughter of Pretty Mary. She’s coming home, riding into town on her stolen Harley, no less. It’s to be a quick trip. She wants to say goodbye to her dying grandfather and then get out of there. It’s clear there’s not much love lost between Kerry and her remaining family in town. However, she is at a bit of a personal crossroads. She’s fleeing a botched armed robbery which resulted in the imprisonment of her partner Allie, who has broken their relationship. Kerry is grieving this. When she and her family catch wind of plans to develop Granny Ava’s island, a sacred place for their people, she decides to stay a bit longer and fight the fight.

So, this becomes, also, a story about land and connection to country versus greedy developers and corrupt politicians who, in this small town, combine in the form of one man, Mayor Jim Buckley. There’s enough thrills and action in the novel, not to mention a romance, to keep lovers of exciting plots engaged, but there’s also enough about characters and their relationships, to keep us more character-oriented readers interested.

This is a confronting novel for non-indigenous Australian readers – but it’s a confrontation we need. It shows (not, didactically tells) what colonial settler societies have done to indigenous inhabitants and how this reverberates through the generations. My back cover blurb calls the novel “gritty and darkly hilarious” – and that’s a perfect description of its tone. Lucashenko privileges us to sit in on an indigenous family’s life. We get to see the world from their perspective, their pain, their frustrations, but also the jokes they make about white people’s ignorance.

Kerry had managed, on the surface anyhow, to rise above the racism she experienced at high school, but

her indifference – part pretence, part real – meant the insults quickly found their targets elsewhere, in the small handful of other Goories who usually decided to fight back, and who were quickly expelled for expecting a bit of common decency in their lives.

Disgusting, isn’t it? Examples of racism abound in the book, but there are also times where Lucashenko’s Goories critique white culture. One of these occurs when policemen, Jim Buckley’s henchmen, turn up at Pretty Mary’s home. The family retaliates by suggesting, at one point in the confrontation, that white people need a refresher on their old ways, and more:

‘How to invade other people’s countries and murder em, and call it civilisation …’ Ken couldn’t remember when he’d enjoyed himself this much.

‘Child stealing 101,’ Black Superman nodded enthusiastically. ‘Interventions for fun and profit.’

‘Globalised capitalism for the one per cent,’ Zippo called out.

Eventually they force the police to retreat, and feel a great sense of victory. They rework the story, savour and analyse it, embellish it, agreeing that “Glenrowan had nothing on Durrongo”. Haha! It’s a wonderfully written scene that makes us whitefellas squirm.

It’s not all hilarious though. The dysfunction is serious. There’s heavy drinking and violence. Brother Ken is irrational, violent, and neglectful of his adolescent son Donny, who is struggling to find his way. Kerry sees this, but is struggling with her own demons, including living in a gendered world where her word counts for little. Even her mother, Pretty Mary, is more likely to turn to Ken than to her daughter. It’s tough. There is hope though, and it comes mainly in the form of two characters – Ken and Kerry’s younger, successful city-dwelling brother, Black Superman, and Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard, in particular, embodies both strength and wisdom. He’s not a push-over, but he exerts leadership when it’s needed. He says to the incendiary Ken:

‘Yeah, okay. We need to fight. But first I think you’d better come to Men’s Camp this weekend. Get yer head clear, neph. Manage your anger so you use it, not it using you.’

It takes some talking, but he eventually prevails. A little later, Uncle Richard brokers a reconciliation amongst the family, encouraging past hurts to be put into context rather than poison their futures:

‘History’s made us all hard … We had to grow hard just to survive, had to get  as hard as that ol’ rock sitting there. But the hardness that saved us, it’s gonna kill us if it goes on much longer. People ain’t rocks …’

Pervading all this is a strong sense of indigenous culture. Connection to the land is palpable, as is its power to revive the family. Birds, particularly crows, play a subtle role. There’s the “king plate” with a power “too dangerous” to leave lying around. There are references to totems, including tongue-in-cheek jokes that suggest indigenous people are serious but not humourless about their culture. And then there’s the Doctor, a shark which swims around Granny Ava’s island, waiting for a blood debt to be paid.

There are some books you read that you just really want to write about. Too much lip is one such book. I so looked forward to writing this post, but I was challenged at the same time. How to do justice to Melissa Lucashenko’s achievement? By wrapping a rich contribution to truth-telling inside an entertaining story guaranteed to keep you turning the page, she has pulled off something impressive. I really hope I’ve been up to the task. Perhaps you’d better read the book – if you haven’t already – to judge for yourself!

Lisa at ANZLitLovers was also impressed by the book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMelissa Lucashenko
Too much lip
St Lucia: UQP, 2018
318pp.
ISBN: 9780702259968

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2019 8:42 pm

    A great review, thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    March 22, 2019 9:35 pm

    Pretty much how I read it though I could not have articulated it as well as you have here, WG. On every page as I read it another reference to history, another insight, another injustice, another strength revealed. And the truth of it all – that sense of some kind of fogginess – a clarity in looking back – the possibility of hope in looking beyond the messy present, too. I’ve been reading bits of Melissa’s writings in journals over the past few years – relishing the release of this novel of which those bits had been parts towards the whole. Not disappointed, I.

    • March 22, 2019 9:53 pm

      Thanks Jim … and I’ve tweaked it a little, mainly in expression, since you read it 15 minutes ago, fiddling to get the right tone and sense! (The freedom of blogging.) It was hard to work out what to say and what to leave out because, as you say, every page provided some insight, some thing that made you go “aha” or “oh no” or “of course”. I’ve reviewed some of her writing here, but this is the first novel. She’s clever and articulate. What a woman.

  3. viggerskarengmailcom permalink
    March 22, 2019 10:11 pm

    Thanks Sue. This is a great and in-depth review. I have just started reading this novel so it’s perfect timing. And I like to be challenged. I loved Mullumbimby, so I figure there will be
    much to love in this novel too.

    • March 22, 2019 10:17 pm

      Thanks Karen … I wanted to read Mullumbimby but didn’t get to it so was very glad to actually get to this. It was a great read – political but a great story too.

      BTW A certain book is almost at the top of the pile now. I just have next week’s reading group book to finish and write up.

  4. March 22, 2019 10:14 pm

    Fantastic, detailed and thoughtful review Sue. There are so many layers in this book

    • March 22, 2019 10:18 pm

      Thanks Angharad. As you can see, I loved all the layers and different perspectives in this book. It had me thinking all the time.

  5. March 22, 2019 11:23 pm

    Thanks for the mention, Sue – and I loved reading your review, it’s always such a pleasure to revisit a book and see different aspects that I missed in my reading.
    I hope she’s working on another one!

    • March 23, 2019 8:50 am

      Yes, I do too, Lisa… Both things… Revisiting a book I’ve read to see different perspectives, and that she’s writing another!

  6. March 23, 2019 8:12 am

    Thank you, I loved this review and have added Too Much Lip to my list. This is timely for me after recently attending a workplace training event where the guest speaker was Billy Williams, a Kamillaroi man who speaks with corporate clients about cultural awareness, with a particular focus on indigenous interns. The session was fantastic but left me with a very heavy heart. It was interesting to see how other people reacted, in that people who have come to Australia more recently were fascinated by the culture and felt happy afterwards (everyone left wanting to learn more about Aboriginal culture), but those with a British background (me included) felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for our shared pasts.

    • March 23, 2019 8:57 am

      Thanks Rose. I hope you do read it. I look forward to your response.

      It’s great that we are seeing more and more of this cultural awareness training happening isn’t it? We need to feel this guilt I think in order to take and/or support serious action.

      • March 24, 2019 1:34 pm

        Yes, I agree. It certainly gave many of us a jolt about a subject we’d never considered from a point of view other than our own and it opened up plenty of conversations afterwards.

        • March 24, 2019 1:36 pm

          That’s great Rose – the conversation is important, and will presumably be take home by many of the participants and discussed with others, which is all part of the value I think if the reading and listening we do.

        • March 24, 2019 1:44 pm

          Yes, a few of us have said that we talked about the training event and issues that were discussed as well as our emotions at home. I’d say it was a very successful event and would recommend it to others. My nieces tell me they have talked about some of this in school too, which is great.

        • March 24, 2019 2:42 pm

          Schools have been increasing their teaching of indigenous culture I think over the last two decades or more, which is wonderful to see. My kids’ primary school, in the 90s had an indigenous artist in residence for a week, part of an ACT Dept of Education program. It means they, unlike many of previous generations will have actually met and spoken with an indigenous person for a start! It’s a slow process though isn’t it!

        • March 25, 2019 8:07 pm

          Your children had a head start! Things seem to be moving faster than ever before, but you’re right, it is slow.

        • March 25, 2019 8:50 pm

          Yes, Rose – well said, faster than before but still slow!

  7. Sara Dowse permalink
    March 23, 2019 4:38 pm

    Agree with everyone – a great review. But think of what you had to work with! I think Too Much Lip is a great novel, not in the overworked sense of the word, but a genuine triumph. Lucashenko’s use of language particularly impressed me – she’s caught the argot with such fluency and without labouring it at all. I will be reading it again one day. As you and others have said, it is so rich and compelling and damning. Without a skerrick of strain or didacticism. It’s all just immovably … there.

    • March 23, 2019 4:43 pm

      Haha, Sara, true! Yes, I wanted to say something about the language but wanted to keep the review tight. It’s perfect isn’t it? I liked how she used indigenous words without needing to explain them. Your description “it’s all just immovably … there” is spot on.

  8. buriedinprint permalink
    March 30, 2019 8:13 am

    This sounds unmissable. Currently, the only copy in our library system is “Reference only” (i.e. cannot be borrowed) but perhaps that will change. *crosses fingers*

    • March 30, 2019 9:23 am

      I think you’ve mentioned that before Buried ie a novel marked that way. I find that strange as it’s hard to read a novel under those conditions. Presumably it hadn’t been bought because it’s a set text somewhere? That would be too soon. Do the y just do that sometimes for new novels?

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  1. ‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko – Reading Matters
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