Miles Franklin Literary Award winner Melissa Lucashenko’s most recent novel Edenglassie (UQP 2023) is in my opinion her best yet, a true masterpiece of historical and contemporary timelines woven together into a powerful story of love and brutality, and all the complicated shades in between, with a poignant message of the long reach of colonisation/invasion and the effects still felt today. This is a lesson in history, complete with many traditional names and words, yet it remains joyfully accessible to readers.
Lucashenko is known as an author and First Nations advocate who doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the history of this nation, doesn’t suffer fools, and has strong feelings on how the history of First Nations people has been rewritten and lied about in the last 200 years. That anger, rage and passion are explored in Edenglassie. But the author I know has done something remarkable with this book: she has tempered those overwhelming emotions with the equally overwhelming emotions of love, friendship, understanding, forgiveness and compassion. Edenglassie defines who Lucashenko is as a person: rationally (and rightly) angry at the past, but gentle, tender and generous towards those who are willing to try to understand that past, and to stand together for a better future through a fuller comprehension and acceptance of the wrongs and damages that have occurred. This novel is the perfect balance between these two powerful feelings and is a better book because of Lucashenko’s generous and respectful attitude towards not only First Nations people and Elders, but towards the smattering of white settlers who were decent humans, and people today who stand beside First Nations people in their fight for a voice. And in the contemporary narrative, she gently pokes fun of young Goories who don’t know their own heritage, or who naively make assumptions about history they don’t understand. She writes characters – all characters, both First Nations and not – as people, complete with flaws and doubts and dislikeable traits, and never portrays the first Australians as some ‘outdated, idealised’ race.
60 000 years of ownership of this country is a long time, and First Nations people are so interconnected with country, flora and fauna through stories, Dreamtime, culture and tradition that sometimes even Indigenous people have trouble comprehending the full scope of historical meaning, while non-indigenous people certainly have even less chance of ever really understanding the complex web of law, family, culture, totems and connections that make up and complete the full Goorie story.
The novel is told in two parts. Five generations ago, in 1854, Mulanyin meets Nita in Edenglassie, when saltwater people still outnumber the British invaders along with Asian, Indian and other people who have travelled to Australia to claim it as their own. Mulanyin’s story is about grief, loss, family, loyalty, fierceness, ambition, love, determination and self-respect. The contemporary narrative, set in 2024, sees feisty activist Winona meet Dr Johnny through his care of her Granny Eddie, a spectacular character who is equal parts fire and water. She’s lived 100 years and knows a thing or two about life, and her history, and the ghosts of those gone who must be heeded, but even she can still be surprised by the legacies of the past.
Set in Magandjin, Kurilpa, Kombumerri, Yagara, Edenglassie – the South Brisbane, Newstead, Moreton Bay and Brisbane of today – the novel is imbued with a particular affinity with south-east Queensland, what it was before the invasion, and what it might have been had our bloody history not reshaped the future.
The cover of Edenglassie is the bright, vivid, arresting colour of blood, shadowed by black spears and guns. Do not be intimidated by this imposing cover, however, because inside the pages runs stories that are beautiful despite the brutality, tender despite the loss, romantic despite the obstacles and engaging despite the pain. Informed by true facts, this reimagined fiction pays homage to real history (which is not necessarily the same as what we read in the history books) without this research and knowledge feeling heavy on the page. Rather the facts are woven together to create two timelines that invoke deep respect and care for the characters, along with an eye-opening glimpse of our shameful past.
Lucashenko is a talented and skilled writer who gifts us beautiful sentences and evocative images, authentic language, flawed and fully rounded characters, and an intense setting and sense of time and place. The idea of time being relative, of long-gone Elders remaining present, of history and karma continually turning the universe over and upending the present: all of these themes are magically woven throughout the story.
This compelling narrative, threaded through with so many customs and traditions, portrays the idea of Country as the centrepiece, and explains different mobs and rules while writing with restraint yet passion, skill and well-informed research. The mix of English and Indigenous language is not translated; we as readers are expected to do some work and to keep up with what is being said, a process that ultimately makes the book only more rewarding. Criticisms of parts of our shameful history are never told directly as such, but we read the truth of history and make up our own minds about the atrocious behaviours of the past, from the malicious and vengeful taking of individual rights and lives, to the unforgiveable massacres and genocides on a grand scale that were perpetuated in the name of colonisation.
Edenglassie also has one of the best definitions I’ve come across of what it means to be a blackfella: ‘ ‘Being a blackfella isn’t about having an ancestor. It’s about who you are, ere, now. In the twenty-first century. Plus who claims ya, and who you are in the world. It’s about who you’re connected to and how you understand land, and your language, and ya mob, and maybe ya Dreaming – it’s a collective thing, not an individual thing. You don’t get to just fucking wake up one day and decide you’re a Blakfella!’ … She [Winona] wasn’t about to start handing out Aboriginality like a popularity prize.’
I absolutely adore this book because of so many aspects: the lessons it teaches me; the characters that will stay with me; the author’s kindness and generosity balanced with her passionate rage; the tolerance with which she (I think) intends to help people understand why ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ is such a powerful statement. An outstanding and astounding literary feat, and an accessible and fascinating story that will keep you hooked from start to finish.