Meaning is a messy act. Its fusing of memory, testimony and narrative is a selective one that shapes cadence and line out of life’s awkward arrhythmia. Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth novel, Mullumbimby, works at the guts of meaning: how we belong to each other and how we might belong to a place.
For most, the New South Wales far north coast means the narrow high-tide beach and tourist-hungry shops of Byron Bay, but 20 kilometres inland is the self-styled ‘Biggest Little Town in Australia’. Mullumbimby draws its name from the local Bundjalung language, meaning a place before a small hill. Like so much Australian geography, the Indigenous name has, flotsam-like, been retained while so much of the culture that gave it birth was swept away. Melissa Lucashenko, in this sure, funny and quietly modulated novel, looks beyond the street sign to an Indigenous presence, broken but enduring.
Jo Breen is a Goorie, an Indigenous woman from the north coast, whose job of edging a lawnmower around the graves of white settlers – both long and recently dead – at the local cemetery gives her the means to purchase a house and land a little out of town for herself and her unwilling teenage daughter. The significance of owning a small piece of jagan, her ancestral lands, is deeply felt:
… from where she stood in the middle of the big paddock, she could take off running in any direction and be winded before she’d left her own land.
That was something for a Goorie woman to think about; something to hold onto and savour.
Jo’s developing relationship with her parcel of land is in one sense a salutary nod to the clearing, from the mid-19th century on, of the once dense lowland rainforest. The Big Scrub was:
… doomed by the axes of men who – months or years from anything they thought of as home – had tried to slash and log and burn their way into freedom here.
As the dugai cedar-getters and farmers cleared and fenced, the forests of white booyung and red cedar of the Big Scrub were replaced by grasslands, camphor laurel and lantana. Jo energetically clears the introduced species, fences the grassland for her beloved colt, Comet, but a friend’s question, ‘Don’t you get lonely here on your own?‘ rattles her. Soon enough, Jo spots a man leaving the town’s bookshop and thinks to herself, ‘Good looking men are nothing but trouble.’
Twoboy and his brother Lazarus are in town to launch a Native Title claim on the local valley and Jo, initially reluctant, falls into Twoboy’s arms, where she finds both some love and some trouble. As the novel progresses, it darkens and deepens, as the tensions between Jo and Twoboy and their different certainties about the land clash and fray.
Twoboy’s sense of belonging to the land of his ancestors is both deepened and troubled by dispossession and distance. Jo is different. Her belonging to the land wasn’t entirely stripped from her, although, damaged by her upbringing and a divorce, she lacks a mob, a people whose knowing makes intimate sense. But her deeply-felt attachment to the yarraman (the colt) and the land shows us how different kinds of stewardship can convert a story about the past into a way of living for the future.
Lucashenko bursts the myth that Indigenous culture must present a unified face to Australia in order to be strong. The balance of voices here is a careful one, born of deep respect and a clear eye.
Mullumbimby is also a book with more than a shy hope of the spiritual. After a fall in the high country, Jo hears the hills:
… singing to her … On and on the chant hummed, now rising and now falling. Like wind in the high treetops. Like waves slapping a shoreline over and over.
Lucashenko keeps the pace of her narrative even and often slides from conversation to conversation without it ever feeling overly expository. The novel’s third-person voice is closely aligned to Jo’s and there’s a laconic directness of expression born of being among family and old friends. My only quibble is the occasional tendency to use unnecessary adverbs or adjectives when neither the sense nor the flow of the narrative demands it.
A place is granted to us by precedent, law and language. The soft pop and tongue roll of the Bundjalung language is essential to this story as these Indigenous words turn readers away from the commonplace and ask us to think again. Mullumbimby, a country town like so many on Australia’s east coast, is my home town, but I am not Indigenous. The gift of this novel is that it looks beyond the recognisable and takes us on to wonder. That is something to savour.
Melissa Lucashenko Mullumbimby, UQP, 2013, 296pp, PB, $29.95
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