I love reading about Australia, ever since I traveled there in 2013. I was struck by the similarities in the history of Australia and the United States, though I felt Australia was much more open about its troubling treatment of Aboriginal populations.
Too Much Lip tells the story of Kerry Salter, a young woman who comes from the Bundjalung community. She left home years ago for Brisbane; now she’s back because her grandfather is dying. She arrives in the small town of Durrongo on a stolen Harley, and she’s already trying to figure out how to get out as soon as possible. Of course getting away from home won’t be so easy. Kerry is reminded how much she loves the land when it’s threatened by the local mayor’s plan to have the area developed and turned into a prison.
Importantly, this is a book about race and history in Australia. It’s about what the white colonists stole from the natives, and about the many abuses that impact families to this day. It’s about how abuse repeats itself over generations – it doesn’t just go away as we might like to think. Be warned – this isn’t an easy book, and it shouldn’t be. Its characters endure slavery, rape, extreme violence, and children separated from their families.
There was so much I loved about this book, particularly the way Lucashenko weaved together Kerry’s culture and mythology, including animals as totems and the importance of land and family history. I liked the magical realism elements, which were minimal enough that they added to the story without detracting from the very difficult issues. And I really liked the way Lucashenko uses local dialect. Though I had trouble at first understanding a lot of the words, I enjoyed trying to figure them out and over time the book became much easier to read.
Kerry dropped into second as she cruised past the corner store, clocking the whitenormalsavages, a dozen blue eyeballs popping fair outta their moogle heads at the sight of her. Skinniest dark girl on a shiny new Softail, heart attack city, truesgod. So yeah, let’s go for it, eh, you mob. Let’s all have a real good dorrie at the blackfella du jour.Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
Lucashenko is described on Goodreads as an Australian of European and Goorie heritage (I looked up the term “Goorie” and it is also spelled Koori and refers to the Aboriginal communities in New South Wales and Victoria). This book won the Miles Franklin Award in 2019, an annual prize awarded to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” (from the award’s website).
Kerry is not an easy character to like; she’s hot-headed, sarcastic, and makes a lot of poor decisions. Her morality is dubious at times (at one point she congratulates herself for not having committed any crimes recently). But I did like her, quite a bit. The title of the book is a reference to her struggle to manage her temper and think before she speaks – although “too much lip” also refers to the fact that her outspoken nature draws the ire of her abusive brother, so maybe she’s not the one that needs to fix anything. Clearly, too many women are too silent about the things that upset them. But at the same time, Kerry does need to learn to deal with her issues more productively.
The one thing I wasn’t sure what to make of, Kerry identifies as a lesbian (she’s just broken up with her girlfriend) yet she’s drawn into a relationship with a local guy, Steve. Much is made about the fact that Steve is not only male, he’s also white. He’s good to her though, and while she resists it, their relationship deepens. One way I read this is that love can happen between two people regardless of what categories or restrictions they place on themselves. On the other hand, Kerry doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether she’s bisexual, and I worried that the message conveyed is that gay people can change their orientation if they just meet the right person. There is another character who is gay and in a strong relationship so that helps.
You can see there are a lot of layers in this book, although there are also clear messages about honoring culture and land, supporting family, and communicating openly and without violence. At its heart, this is a book about troubled family relationships, and dealing with abuse and conflict. I really appreciated the vivid characters and the sense of humor throughout what is a dark story. I also appreciated the historical detail and the fact that it allowed me to experience a place and a culture I would otherwise know little about. There is a lot of violence and profanity, but it all feels necessary to the story. I definitely recommend this book to readers looking to read about diverse cultures.
Note: I received a complimentary advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher HarperVia. This book published in Australia in 2018, and in the U.S. on November 3, 2020.