I love it when I pick up a book, for which I hold no expectations and know very little about, and am totally captivated by it. This was how it went with Mullumbimby. I reckon Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko will feature in my top five books of 2016; it’s funny, tender, instructive and a page-turner all at once.
The book’s protagonist is Jo Breen, an Aboriginal woman living in Mullumbimby, a small town in north-eastern New South Wales. I instantly warmed to Jo as the central character; she’s tough, smart, proud of her Bundjalung heritage and has a caustic tongue.
At the heart of the novel is a story that we don’t hear enough about in literature – a woman’s journey to reconnect with her country. I learned more about Indigenous connections to land, and the composition of this connection through this book than from anything else I’ve ever read.
I put a lot of that down to the writing style of Mullimbimby. Despite the narrative being in the third person about Jo, the story is told through her eyes and funnelled through her perspective. This unusual technique meant I felt really close to Jo as I was privy to not only her thoughts, but her core views on the world, as well as her acerbic observations:
That was how social interaction worked, wasn’t it? You stated the bloody obvious, and then they did, and then ultimately, after endless ritualistic chitchat, someone finally said something containing information or meaning and then there was actually a point to the conversation?
Aboriginal words are used frequently in the text (with a glossary at the back which I relied on a lot initially, and then hardly at all) grounding the narrative very firmly in Jo’s life as a Goorie woman. The dialogue and Jo’s musings seemed (to me anyway) to be genuine reflections of how Goorie people speak (‘..that dadirri be a two-edged sword, my aunt’/ ‘That arsehole copper needed singing onetime’.) Rather than being alienating, this writing style bred an easy familiarity with all the characters and really brought them to life.
In the narrative, Mullumbimby explores Aboriginal people’s connections to land through intertwining plot lines. Jo has bought her own acreage from her divorce settlement and despite being continually broke (scraping together car-floor coins to buy milk and bread) and the hard work a farm entails, she sees this as her first step to reconnect with her ancestral land. (‘Unbelievably, she and her brother Stevo had together bought back a patch of Bundjalung land, reclaimed a fragment of their country.’) Jo revels in the mental and spiritual freedom this brings her.
Meanwhile her boyfriend, Twoboy, is fighting to claim his ancestors’ land before the Native Title Tribunal. The factional and increasingly vitriolic tensions this land claim creates amongst Aboriginal families gave me a glimpse of what is actually at stake for claimants.
‘Native Title isn’t about acreage. It’s…’ Jo struggled for the words to make Therese understand. ‘Its about honour, I suppose. If he’s [Twoboy’s] recognised as a traditional owner, then he’s a warrior who’s finally made things better for his family, a tiny bit. It’s about winning a war that nobody even talked about for two hundred years’.
Twoboy expresses it a little differently:
Look at that hill. I dunno for sure, but I reckon Mum’s old people, a lotta our old people, gotta be buried up there … Heal it. Sing it. And maybe then our old people might rest easy for once. That’s what the court case is about.
Lucashenko doesn’t herald Native Title as a panacea, in fact it’s derided by the characters as being the equivalent of scrabbling after scraps from the white man’s dinner table. However, the tortured process of claiming Native Title is an excellent vehicle for Lucashenko to convey the multi-layered tensions, politics and ironies of Black/ White relations in this country.
Some readers might find it confronting how white people are portrayed in Mullimbimby; we’re derided as gauche, out of kilter with our environs, stupid even and above all, greedy. But I found these observations about modern dugai (white Australians), as well as our colonial forbears, really powerful:
As she drove from the farm into Mullum each morning, she ruminated on the clear fact that country roads she travelled were lined with fences, boundaries, impenetrable borders. She saw with fresh eyes the road signs and their host of admonitions to slow, to stop, to give way…. Everything in the world, she began to see, was bordered. Almost everything was locked up and claimed by other people. The dugai had come and had planted that bloody flag of theirs at Botany Bay, and in the intervening centuries had taken it upon themselves to lace the country tight, using bitumen and wire and timber to bind their gift of a continent to themselves.
Don’t for one second think that reading Mullimbimby is like receiving a lecture. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I loved the characters, the writing and the story came to a surprisingly tense climax that was a real page-turner.
Melissa Lucaschenko has delivered a book that is smart, entertaining and culturally educative – and full of warmth and humour – which means just one thing. Even after only one novel, I’m now a dedicated fan and will most definitely be seeking out Lucashenko’s other books.
Feature image courtesy of Yellow Arrow.