Mullumbimby / Melissa Lucashenko / August 2022  / 
Native Title

story / Book Club / August 17, 2022

Rosie and I set about reviewing Mullumbimby this month, by Aboriginal writer Melissa Lucashenko. To give you a very brief synopsis, (as always…spoiler alert), the story revolves around Jo Breen, a divorced woman and former musician who moves with her daughter to Mullumbimby. We open with Jo mowing the lawns at a cemetery for white settlers in the small town. It is clear Jo has a deep connection to her Aboriginal culture and she has worked hard to buy herself a block of land on her ancestral lands and to care for herself and her teenage daughter. Slowly she falls for Twoboy, an Aboriginal man who has come from Queensland to claim his family’s land back from the Crown. As an outsider, local Aboriginal families fight the claim. Jo becomes embroiled in a local Native Title dispute between the two rival Aboriginal families, which leads her to profound discoveries about culture, and her and her daughter’s place in it.

 

D: I read a couple of reviews and one, from James Tierney from The Newton Review of Books, had a great quote: “Lucashenko bursts the myth that Indigenous culture must present a unified face to Australia in order to be strong” I honestly did not contemplate – to my embarrassment – that Native Title claims would be disruptive to the community.

R: You never thought that? Oh wow. Sidenote: There is this amazing podcast called Wrong Skin about two missing persons in the Looma community in North Western Australia. I’m not sure if you know what ‘wrong skin’ is but it is used to describe a relationship which is forbidden under tribal laws. Within the podcast, there’s this one episode about Native Title and corruption within that. There’s individuals who claim Native Title to take advantage of mining kickbacks and the like. It honestly blew my mind, there are good and bad people everywhere, exploiting opportunities.

D: It never crossed my mind – but of course people are exploiting it! Of course!

R: It’s heartbreaking, it’s already so hard for Aboriginal communities to get their land back, there are already so many barriers. Sucks that people are doing this!?

D: There was almost a point where I thought Twoboy was going to turn out to be a fake. Especially because at the start of the book he is so sure of his Native Title claim and he has all this ‘evidence’ and then suddenly they are battling it out and it seems they don’t have anything. It’s inconsistent.

Another nice review comment by Eve Vincent (The Sydney Review of Books), she said, “The novel plumbs the depths of bitterness, conflict and destruction the native title process too often leaves in its wake.”

R: It’s so interesting. Like we both think, it’s such a slow book, and I’m honestly not sure I would have finished it if we weren’t reading it for book club. And at the start I just felt like nothing was happening and I didn’t know it was going to be about Native Title. It was kind of a side note.

D: I mean it’s not even about Native Title until the end. It’s a side plot that suddenly becomes The Plot.

R: I felt Lucashenko went hard on the single mother, obsessed with a hot boy, narrative. And I just felt – I’m not sure where I’m going with this book?

D: I actually wrote down a note about Jo’s character – her only role seems to be to become infatuated with Twoboy, so that we can get this story of Native Title. That seems to be the only thing she is there for. But why didn’t Lucashenko just make Native Title central to Jo’s character?

Also, there’s a lot about horses…Like, ok, we can move on from the horses now…And the only reason that the horse seems to die (spoiler alert), is so the neighbour can be painted as a villain, before he becomes the saviour.

R: Right…I want to go into this ‘saviour’.

D: We will get there…

R: Right, we are coming back to him!

D: I’ll tell you what I like about Jo. She saw the quickest way to have her connection to the land back, was to actually just buy it back. She was just playing the western system. She wants to buy it back, then sets about vigorously ‘decolonising’ it of foreign plants. There’s a lot about weeds, which I guess is very symbolic of invaders etc. But she is also very conscious of how she has been westernised in her approach to life and sometimes corrects herself, but has a very clear connection with the land and animals and her culture and that’s really nice. That’s the enjoyable part. I like the quote:
“She had circled around the hideous politics of colonial fallout, and bought back the ancestral land herself.”

R: The language around nature and wildlife; she is really in tune with her experience of the land. Hearing language was really different. I loved reading it.

D: And not tokenistic. The words were in there. Integrated into the narrative.

What I disliked was that so many things are left unexplained. There are so many dead end plot points. She has a University degree but we never find out why she has the degree, what she has done with it, why she is mowing lawns for a living. She is a muso, but she never tells Twoboy and we don’t really find out why she won’t tell him. We only get the reason that she has given up music because of her daughter – when she actually says that to her daughter, Ellen, I felt terrible for Ellen.

Ellen is two-dimensional. She is this amazing artist who suddenly knows things about her culture, or she is this moody teenager.

We don’t ever find out why Jo’s husband left her. We don’t find out why she was in a psych ward. We don’t find out her brother is living overseas. There ‘s all these things that are there, but never rounded out. I kept waiting for these plot lines to come together and they didn’t. Her character was enjoyable in a sense, but the narrative was lacking. Then I found out that Lucashenka had to cut 17,000 words, so I’m wondering if there was actually all of that in there and now there are just lingering bits of plot that never resolve.

We only really get in depth with Jo, in terms of characters. There are no other characters that are fleshed out.

R: I did really love her defending her daughter. Obviously at the start she is so boy obsessed, and then when she flips it, I really liked that. There was a lot of content about horses, but I genuinely liked Jo as a character.

D: I didn’t dislike her. She isn’t unlikable like the main character in Love & Virtue. But the storytelling is frustrating at times.

R: She did say one quote that I wrote down: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”.

D: Haha, I totally underlined that for future use.

R: So good! I thought it was interesting when she spoke about dating outside your culture and the challenges that can present.

D: I know. I’m assuming her husband wasn’t Aboriginal, but you never find out why the marriage did and then didn’t work.

R: There were also interesting notes about children. She describes indigenous children, sitting, observing and learning. While white children are talking and asking heaps of questions. A lot of it goes to introversion and extroversion in eastern and western cultures. White people are celebrated for who asks the questions, whereas in eastern cultures, you only ask questions if you aren’t the smartest. And I didn’t realize that was an indigenous trait as well. It makes sense, learning from elders and the country.

D: It’s a difference between respecting your elders. We aren’t taught to do that any more.

R: I never once felt that the use of language, or the spirituality in the book was tokenistic.

D: I did feel like it got too mystical in the end.

R: Agree, but I realised that was me and how my brain works – I’m too logical.

D: I love sci-fi fantasy, but I just felt like it came out of nowhere. Again, maybe shit got pulled out that would have made it more plausible. I bought it when she went into the hills and heard the voices, but the hands of her daughter having the map of the land in her palm lines? Too much…right in the last chapter.

I wrote that the whole story boils down to the last chapter…so steeped in mysticism that it’s painful, despite the rest of the story being quite a measured book.

R: The neighbour. Let’s get into it.

D: So the neighbour villain. Turned into a saviour. Seems to be the culmination for half the book’s plot, but only makes a couple of brief cameos before the end where he is a main player. Jo, for someone who loves horses so much, seems to be so careless with the colt that it dies, just so she can have this altercation with the neighbour. And then, she assumes he is a pedophile?

R: I don’t know why we went there with the whole pedophile thing.

D: Then he is suddenly giving all his land to the Aboriginal community. Why? Just because he has no kids? It’s not really explained. What’s his motivation?

R: I don’t know if they were trying to say, this is how you can be a good neighbour, this is a good example of support? I feel like every story has this random white saviour bullshit.

D: And a man of course.

R: Do you remember that movie Hidden Figures of the women at NASA, and there’s this one scene where the boss smashes down a toilet sign, and you’re like, WTF? These incredible women are getting it done and you have this one scene where you make a thing about the white guy smashing a sign, like you have made their lives better. Get out of here.

D: Is the book famous and well received because despite the issues, it has an Aboriginal author. Is that a terrible question?

R: I have no research behind this, but I don’t believe there are many novels of the time around Native Title. And having an authentic voice behind a book around native title, probably led to a lot of people reading it. Also, we have said a lot of positive things about the language, the relationship with country. It is really written beautifully. It’s just the start is slow. If you are the kind of person that is chill with a slow book – I think we are too used to a fast paced life – then you probably won’t mind the slowness.

D: I didn’t mind the slowness. If a book is slow, it will eventually get me, but the problem is too much happens right at the end. The pace felt off-kilter. Because so much happens in the last little bit. I’m overwhelmed by it.

R: I think it’s really nice and they said it from a few angles, that Native Title is not just about land, it’s about acknowledgment of the atrocities, about white Australians putting something in writing that states there were people here before Europeans. I think that’s such an important message that sometimes gets lost. I think at a high level, society thinks Native Title is all about greed and it’s really not.

And, I loved that Lucashenko threw in little one liners about everything white people are shit at, like fire management. I actually laughed – we deserve it.

D: Yep, there is a great line about Twoboy “If he’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.”

Whilst Jo has a lot of connection to culture and to place, she doesn’t have a lot of connection to people. She hasn’t found her mob. Where Twoboy is the opposite, he has lost his connection to land and culture, but has a support system and seems to team up with people easily. She doesn’t seem to connect with the local Aboriginal people. She is suspicious of granny on her bike. Awkward with Humbug. She gets with Twoboy because he is attractive, otherwise all her friends are Asian or white.

R: But she also throws shade at her white friends as well. Like sure, you’re allowed to throw shade, but why be friends with them then?

I think it would be around 3.5 – 4 for me.

D: I would give it a 3.

R: I am really glad I read it though. There are things in it that I haven’t read a lot about before and I was pleasantly surprised to hear and engage with things I hadn’t before. It is actually really nice to be engrossed in Aboriginal culture in a way that is sometimes hard to find in Australia. It was slow and it took time, but I’m glad I read it.

D: I’m just frustrated at the unexplained, but would recommend it.

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