Book review: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Kerry Salter’s girlfriend is in jail and her pop is dying, so she leaves Brisbane and her arrest warrants behind and heads south on a stolen Harley to her hometown of Durrongo – a place she’s been avoiding.

Thing is, you run now, after last night, and it’ll haunt you forever. You can go as far away as you like, but the past always comes along for the ride.

Too Much Lip is Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko’s seventh novel. Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Stella Prize and winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, it is a dark, funny story about family, home, country, intergenerational trauma, evil property developers, talking animals, life and death.

Kerry knew from long experience that there was no winning an argument with her mother. To Pretty Mary she was and always would be the Great Abandoner. Shame enough to turn out a dyke, but her far greater sin was the empty hole she’d left behind her in the family. Even in the terrible dark shadow cast by Donna’s disappearance, Kerry had still up and left to live among whitefellas and city people. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, blah blah de-fucken-blah.

Bundjalung language words are peppered through a narrative that exposes the impacts of the history of colonisation and dispossession on Australian Aboriginal people. Lucashenko’s voice in the novel is unique and effectively echoes the voices of Australian aboriginal people I have known. I have never read a novel like it – which primarily tells me that there are far too few Indigenous voices in literature.

Kerry looked around the deserted road.

‘Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help instead of sitting up there like a mug liar from the city.

Kerry looked around again. The waark hopped up and down in rage.

Then the second crow chimed in, dripping scorn.

It’s no good to ya, fang face. Can’t talk lingo! Can’t even find its way home! Turned right at the Cal River when it shoulda kept going straight. It’s as moggle as you look.’

On being awarded the Miles Franklin some critics claimed Too Much Lip to be undeserving as Lucashenko’s voice was not ‘literary’. My reading of that criticism is that those critics are pompous, entitled gits – probably in need of empathy training – and most likely educated in posh private schools with little experience of diversity and no understanding or appreciation of its value.

For a moment Kerry thought her mother was talking about killing the old man. Putting him down gently. Her second thought, hard on the heels of the first, was: just as well Ken’s drug of choice isn’t morphine. If the hospital had prescribed malt whisky to ease Pop’s last days they would have been in trouble.

The Salter family are gritty representations of people living in poverty and battling with day-to-day existence in all its joys, sorrows, and frustrations. Their education is primarily in their own culture, and in survival – not academia and privilege. They are flawed, funny survivours who love and hurt the people they care about, and go through life trying to make the best of it.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip is a political novel, which perhaps makes it confronting and challenging for some white Australians to read, but we all should read it because within its pages there is opportunity for greater understanding, and that might help lift our humanity above our turned-up wanker noses.

I’ll definitely be adding more of Lucashenko’s work to my reading list.

Know where you live

I was listening to Melissa Lucashenko interviewed on The Garret podcast about her novel Too Much Lip whilst I laboured in the garden. The novel won Melissa the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award amongst other accolades.

Too Much Lip is the story of Kerry Salter, a First Nations Woman, who returns to the place she has been avoiding all her adult life – her hometown. She heads south on a stolen Harley for one last visit to see her dying Pop. The novel is a dark, political, funny and fast paced story about the Salter family, love and redemption, set in fictional Bundjalung country.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip

During the interview Melissa spoke about relationships to land, connection to country, and the cultural differences in that connection and knowing. It occurred to me, with a little embarrassment, that despite having lived in the same place and admired the same fabulous view every day for twenty-five years, I did not actually know the names of all the distant landmarks. So I did a bit of research to educate myself. Sadly my efforts returned very little about the Indigenous culture of the specific mountains I can see from my balcony, though all fall within the Wurundjeri and Taungurung lands of the Kulin Nations.

One Tree Hill (372m), Christmas Hills.

One Tree Hill

Europeans named Christmas Hills after David Christmas, an emancipated convict shepherd who got lost in the area in 1842. Gold was discovered at One Tree Hill in 1859 causing a brief gold rush until 1964. Remnants of the mining activity are still visible if you meander along Happy Valley Walking Track through the bush and along the creek of that name. The reserve is home to the large bent-wing bat, eastern horseshoe bat, the carnivorous marsupial phascogale, and powerful, and barking owls.

Yarra Ridge (241m), Christmas Hills

Yarra Ridge is not just a wine label, though being part of Victoria’s first wine growing district most of the information online is about wine. The regions viticultural history goes back to 1838 when the Ryrie Brothers planted a vineyard at Yering Station and produced their first drop in 1845. Vines were first planted at the original Yarra Ridge vineyard by lawyer Louis Bialkower in 1983, though Yarra Ridge wines are now just a brand, having been taken over by Foster’s Group.

Yarra Ridge the place is part of the Great Dividing Range. The Watsons Creek catchment runs along the southern spur downstream form Kinglake National Park and is home to the Growling Grass Frog, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Common Dunnart and the Barking Owl.

From my balcony on 7 February 2009, I could see the glow of the fire that swept along Yarra Ridge which carried it down to devastate the Steels Creek valley. Alice Bishop, author of A Constant Hum, a book which grapples with the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, grew up at Christmas Hills.

Mount Graham (271m), Christmas Hills

Mount Graham overlooks Sugarloaf Reservoir, built in the 1970s to supplement Melbourne’s domestic water supply. The dam is fed by the Yarra River and the Maroondah Aqueduct that runs past the base of Mount Graham via the Sugarloaf pipeline.

There is a 14km walking track around the reservoir that skirts the base of Mount Graham. The more adventurous can take the steep climb along a rough track over native grasslands and through fern thickets to the top of the mountain.

Mount Tanglefoot (1024m) and Mount St Leonard (1100m)

Mount St Leonard

Mount Tanglefoot is just north of Mount St Leonard in the Toolangi State Forest. The two peaks are connected by a 10km saddle.

Toolangi is an aboriginal word meaning tall trees, a nod to the Mountain Ash and Myrtle Beech trees in the area that attracted the paling splitters and timber cutters who moved there in the 1890s. At least one of the giant beauties was spared – Toolangi Forest is home to the 400 year old, 65m high Kalatha Giant, a mountain ash that is the seventh largest tree in Victoria. The forest also houses a sculpture trail that takes in sculptures formed from materials taken sustainably from the forest.

Toolangi even has a bit of literary history. One of Australia’s most famous poets, CJ (Clarence James) Dennis the author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke published in the early 20th century, lived in a hut at Toolangi in the early 1900s. He published his first volume of poems, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, whilst living there.