Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko was the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2019 and as such, was the obvious choice for me to begin fulfilling my New Year’s resolution of buying a book by an Australian author each month.
Not only was Too Much Lip the obvious choice, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking, unsettling and worrying look at an Australia that I know exists, but ignore. What am I ignoring? The contemporary version of Australia that many (not all) Aboriginal Australians live in. Why do I ignore this Australia? For my own peace of mind. I’m a privileged white Australian with everything I want and more. I’m automatically trusted and respected, I have choices. I have my family around me, work I enjoy and financial freedom. I have the support of the law. I was encouraged to continue my education. I’ve never been subjected to racism of any kind. I’m very grateful to be who I am, which came about just from being born. Most of the Aboriginal characters in this book don’t have and are unlikely to get what I have. Those that do are what the other characters derogatorily call ‘coconuts,’ Aboriginal people who live their life according to ‘white’ values. The question now is, can I keep ignoring these differences in real life?
Too Much Lip is set in a fictional town in Woop-Woop called Durrongo, in Bundjalung country in northern NSW. The name Durrongo amused me because it reminded me of ‘drongo,’ an Australian slang word for an idiot. I’d love to know if the author planned this. One of the characters refers to the town as the “Place of Centrelink fraud”.
The main character is Kerry Salter, who roared back to her family home on a stolen Harley Davidson motorbike with a backpack full of cash from a robbery her girlfriend had just been sent to prison for. Kerry’s Pop, who was both respected and feared throughout the Salter family and greater community, was dying and Kerry only planned on staying around long enough to say goodbye.
Kerry’s Pop grew up on a mission and did not know where his country was. As an Aboriginal, this meant that a vital part of his self was missing. As a successful boxer he earned some protection from the trouble that most Aboriginal people experienced from white Australians and later in life was able to provide his family with a home of their own and some security. Kerry’s mother, Pretty Mary, a former alcoholic, was nursing him as he lay dying.
Also living in the family home was Kerry’s brother Ken, a big, angry, former football star who had recently been released from prison. Kenny’s violent temper kept everyone around him on tenterhooks as he bullied his way through life. Kerry was horrified to realise that Kenny’s teenage son Donny was very often the brunt of his irrational rages and was suffering from anorexic.
Kerry usually bolted when the going got tough, but when her backpack full of stolen cash was stolen from her by a local politician, Jim Buckley, she stayed on in Durrongo, planning to steal it back. When she learned that Buckley was selling the land on the local river to a consortium who planned to build a jail, Kerry and the rest of the extended Salter family decided to fight the development as a land rights issue. The river and Granny Ava’s Island was more meaningful to them than I could have imagined, as the location of where Kerry’s pregnant great-grandmother Ava had been shot swimming across the river to escape white men. The river was also the home of the totem animal of the men of the family, a shark.
Kerry’s stay in town became more complicated when she met Steve, who she remembered as a dorky schoolboy but who was now a very attractive man. The only thing wrong with him is that he was white. And a man.
Kerry’s trait of ‘too much lip’ referred to her inability to keep quiet rather than voice her opinion, particularly when negotiating her way around Kenny.
While it took me a long time to stop feeling as if I were being assaulted by the constant, often vicious swearing, I accept that this also felt true to how the characters should speak. The language in this book was full of a slang that I recognised but don’t use, but also included words I don’t know, Aboriginal words such as ‘jahjams’ for children, ‘womba’ for crazy and ‘gunjies’ for police.
I was constantly shocked by the violence which the family took for granted, the crime, the poverty, the drinking, the gambling and the double standards, even those that they used themselves (for example, Kerry was furious when her cash was stolen from her, but ignored the fact that it had been stolen by her girlfriend in the first place). I was also irritated by the Salter family’s attitude towards Centrelink and government benefits, because as a worker, that’s my hard-earned tax the characters were treating as a right rather than a privilege, and their disregard for the law. Despite these moral quibbles, I was on Kerry’s side all the way through, regardless of the terrible choices she often made, as her and her family’s secrets were exposed. It was easy to recognise that their often shocking behaviours were just the symptoms of their family’s problems.
The family’s and local history continued to complicate the present for Kerry and her family. Aboriginal families were split up as children who were considered ‘white enough’ were stolen from their families. The children in the Salter family weren’t always safe from their own family members. Buckley’s grandfather had been a police officer who treated the Salter family and other Aboriginals in the area with terrible violence. The local policeman’s grandfather, who had settled the area and became a cattle baron, was even more violent than the politician’s grandfather, and had fathered a great many of the Aboriginal children in the area. Many wrong deeds continued to impact the people in this book for generations after each event.
Despite the questions racing around in my head, I found Too Much Lip to be a very funny book. There are moments of hope and joy and some inspirational characters, including Kerry’s Uncle Richard who showed Kenny a better way to live, by promoting traditional Aboriginal values instead of expressing himself violently. Kerry’s other brother, Black Superman, is another wonderful man who fosters emotionally and physically-damaged children. I loved reading about the character’s connections with birds and animals and of course, with the land which been built on over many generations of family stories. I also loved the glimpse of mystic connections with all of these elements which I believed in completely.
This has been a very difficult review to write. I’m not just commenting on a story, but on who Australians are. Not only that, but I’m publishing this on the Australia Day public holiday, which Kerry would hate (Invasion Day). Australia Day means something different to all of us, but we are all Australian and this year I’ll be thinking of what it means to be an Australian, thanks to this book.
Too Much Lip has left me with a lot of questions about what we have to do next, as a nation and as individuals, to be the best that we can. I feel as I’ve made a beginning by listening.
Too Much Lip came to my attention after Whispering Gums reviewed the book last year. You can read Sue’s review here:
I’ll be tracking my progress of my New Year’s Resolution to buy a book by an Australian author each month on my ‘Buying Australian’ page.