Wow. I finished reading Too Much Lip (UQP 2018) by Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko, and have spent yesterday and today fiddling around with this review, adding bits here and there, trying to get it right and not feeling very successful. This is a hard review to write, or rather, it is difficult to express myself in the right way.
This book is good. Very good. It is an unflinching, raw and honest exploration of one modern-day (fictional) Aboriginal family, with all its flaws and problems. But it is also a book that offers important cultural and historical insights into intergenerational trauma and abuse. It is a book that doesn’t waste time asking questions such as why and how, but instead jumps straight in and provides the answers by depicting the effects of history. Yes, I’m talking about colonisation (or invasion) and massacres, about slavery and stolen land and stolen children, about one group of people attempting to systematically crush the spirit of another. For while this story is ostensibly about Kerry Salter and her family, on a deeper level it is about so much more.
This book pulls no punches, and the author makes abundantly clear her rage at what has occurred, her absolute abhorrence of the treatment of her ancestors (she is of Bundjalung and European heritage). But just as she sweeps us up in the injustice and futility of our nation’s past, she takes the sting from the tail with small moments of honour and faith, small acts of love and sacrifice. Just as she immerses us in the most terrible incidents of violence, she lifts us up with the strength of family ties, with the clarity of connection and belonging. And she does this with such humour, such dark and funny wit, such outrageous and cinematic scenarios, that we cannot help but laugh out loud even while we’re cringing with embarrassment, even while the inevitable despondency descends. This book has all the feelings.
The Salter family has suffered and is suffering, but its people are not downtrodden or lost or vanquished. They are survivors. They are tough and steely. They present their armour to the world, but underneath we catch glimpses of their soft and vulnerable underbellies. This is a book that confronts the reader with graphic and uncomfortable situations and invites us right through the door to experience them. Reading through these pages is to – just for a short time – inhabit their world. This is the best kind of example of how fiction breeds empathy. And no matter how far you feel you are from the Salter family, I can guarantee that by the end of this book, you will understand something you didn’t before, and appreciate the pain and struggle of others in a new way.
The book opens with a violent prologue set in 1943, and this one incident gives us some small insight into the events that forge the shape of what is to come. Seventy years later, the revenge and hurt and humiliation have festered, and imprinted a dark legacy for future generations.
In Too Much Lip we are introduced to a cast of memorable characters and a zany and improbable storyline, all the more remarkable because it is based on truths. This modern-day adventure – part heist, part romance, part family saga, part protest – is set against the blood and violence of history and the cruel realities of the present day. The protagonist, Kerry Salter, is angry, tough, generous, reckless and, like all the characters in this book, at times intensely dislikeable and at other times wholly sympathetic and compelling. She’s on the run on a stolen Harley, with a backpack full of who-knows-what (but it’s sure to be trouble), after leaving her girlfriend locked up in a Brisbane prison. She hasn’t seen her family for over a year, and when she returns because her grandfather is dying, it’s to the full catastrophe and chaos of dysfunctional family life, including the absence of her sister Donna who disappeared 20 years earlier. Determined to stay only 24 hours, Kerry’s plans are derailed when she meets a handsome dugai inclined to hold fast to her, despite her best intentions to stay single. Her older brother Ken is bitter and resentful and throws his weight around through violent rages. Along with the rest of her family – her younger brother Black Superman, her mum Pretty Mary, and a whole mob of uncles, aunties and cousins – they band together to try and save their spiritual home, Granny Ava’s Island, from the imminent development of a prison on its peaceful river banks. As this large and chaotic group of characters come together and drift apart, as they yarn and celebrate and commiserate and mourn, they are surrounded by the ghosts of their Elders and the memories of their ancestors, and driven by the deep need to make peace with their past while scrabbling to make sense of their present.
Within the first few pages of this book, the characters reach out and grab you by the throat and refuse to let go. Drawn into Kerry’s world, you begin to recognise her family and friends. The language of Too Much Lip is astonishing; the dialogue is authentic and the descriptions lush. Lucashenko has impressively woven Aboriginal words so seamlessly into the narrative that by the time I got to the final pages, I understood the meaning of words I had never heard of prior to reading this book. She’s not heavy-handed with it though; she doesn’t hit you over the head with it. The words are just there, used naturally and easily.
The animals have agency in this book – the crows, the shark – but this is done with the lightest touch, and with such a sense of humour and wit that it not only seems entirely probable that they have spoken and that we have understood them, but it seems amazing that until now we have noticed only their silence.
Parts of this book are hard to read – the violence, the abuse, the alcoholism and addiction, the crime. Some of the revelations towards the end are difficult to accept, they come upon us suddenly and without warning, and throw us off balance as we struggle to come to terms with their meanings – the effects of history, the long arm of suffering, the impossibility of fighting against a lifetime of wrongs, and not only one lifetime, but generations of wrongs suffered by generations of predecessors. It is a difficult thing, to walk in the shoes of another, to inhabit their skin and feel their pain, and I’m not sure we as individuals can ever really do it effectively. But certainly in fiction, we can journey with others, we can take advantage of the writer’s unique perspective, and experience a little of what it must be like. We can empathise. We can try to understand.
And that’s one thing this book offers – the opportunity to understand.
Aboriginal culture, history and current problematic issues are not viewed through rose-tinted glasses but are presented with all their flaws and cracks; nevertheless because we are simultaneously reminded of context and insight, we understand better how these characters came to be in this place, and how these situations have developed. We see, perhaps, how a damaged foundation can threaten the stability of what is built upon it; how a legacy of damage can undermine a family or a society; how a series of wrongs can create layers of guilt and anger and revenge.
Like the author’s previous work, this tale emphasises the connection between First Nation Peoples and their country, and highlights their innate sense of belonging, their unbreakable links with the land. However I think that Too Much Lip is even more accessible and engaging than Lucashenko’s previous award-winning book, Mullumbimby. Despite the Salter family being far removed from my own experience, I felt fully immersed in their lives. The sharp language and the cutting characterisations gave me fully realised and well-drawn characters, and enabled me to feel a sense of empathy with their struggles, even though I don’t share their intergenerational pain. I can only imagine what it would be like for an Indigenous person to read this book – to see their own story so raw and open. Lucashenko touches on issues that a white person wouldn’t dare; she frays nerves and opens wounds that an outsider could never touch. She does this bravely and with vigour. She lays it all out for us to see, and then dares us to approach. Look, she seems to say, Look at us. Look at where we are and what we have become. Look at what we’ve done. Look.
As a non-indigenous reader, I can’t pretend to understand the pain that has birthed this book, but what I can do is open my ears and listen. Look and listen. And try to learn something.