Living on Country

mullumbimbyMelissa Lucashenko’s debut novel, Steam Pigs (UQP, 1997) was a multi-award winner, followed up the next year by a young adult story, Killing Darcy.  In 1999 she published Hard Yards, and a second YA novel, Too Flash, appeared in 2002.  In the intervening ten years, she published a few essays and short stories.  Now she’s come back with another novel, and I think it’s been worth the wait.

Mullumbimby (UQP, 2013) is set in the Northern Rivers district of New South Wales and while some reviews have noted autobiographical elements (her Bundjalung ancestry and love of horses plays significant roles in the story), this novel has taken Lucashenko a long way from the writer-coming-of-age narrative of Steam Pigs.  Jo Breen, Mullumbimby’s protagonist, is still a seeker—she is searching for a connection to her ancestral country—but she is a woman of accomplishments: mother of a teenage girl and owner of a small farm that she has purchased with hard-earned wages (and a divorce settlement), among other things.

There is some irony in the fact that Jo earns her living by caring for “country” in an unusual way: she is the groundskeeper at the local cemetery where the ancestors of today’s whitefellas are interred: the very people, many of whose memorials are faded beyond memory, who wrested the land from her own Bundjalung ancestors.  But this engagement has allowed her, in one respect, to beat those whitefellas at their own game and reclaim a parcel of her heritage, enough to make a home and keep two beloved horses.

Complications set in quickly.  Her teenage daughter Ellen is acting like, well, a teenager, often frustrated and sullen, unhappy at being whisked away from her friends in town to an isolated country life.  Jo’s beloved Aunty Barb has passed away, leaving her bereft of an important connection to family and her past.  There’s a suspicious neighbor, Rob Starr, and hints of a boundary dispute where their respective landholdings abut a World Heritage tract.  Unsettled memories of her long-ago career as a musician are wrapped up with the business of her divorce: more broken links, although she doesn’t especially mourn the loss of her ex.  And then there’s Twoboy.

When Jo first spots the handsome dreadlocked blackfella on the street in Mullum, his physical black beauty excites an intense feeling of physical desire and sets off a riot of warning bells.  In Jo’s experience, men mean trouble, and the better-looking they are, the more trouble and heartbreak they promise.  But Twoboy proves irresistible, the more so when Jo learns that he has come to do research in support of a land rights claim that could restore Bundjalung custodianship of the country around Mullumbimby and provide heritage-related jobs in caring for the land.  Jo and Twoboy become lovers in short order, but there are tensions built into the relationship from the start, apart from Jo’s misgivings about gorgeous Koori men.

Jo has a pragmatic and very down-to-earth need to get her country in order, to repel invasive plant species, to build the fences that will protect her precious horses, and to assert her space and her hard-won rights to occupy it.  Twoboy, who has his own set of family problems revolving around his brother’s son, a kid perpetually on the verge of delinquency and disaster, is often away in Brisbane, dressed in business drag and attending to the distractions of the Native Title Tribunal when he’d rather be near Jo and doing the research that will prove his kinship and connection to the country essential to winning the court case.  Jo would rather have Twoboy helping her quell the flourishing and threatening camphor laurels seem intent on taking over her land.

WIth Jo and Twoboy’s very different strategies for reconnecting with their ancestral land—both of them deeply entwined in their own ways with whitefella norms of ownership as much or more than with traditional concepts of custodianship—Lucashenko dramatizes her central theme.  She wants us to understand that there is no single, simple formula for describing Aboriginal land tenure.  Connections are deeply personal, and they are bound up in community relationships as well.  Entangled with dugai (whitefella) law and custom, they become even more multifaceted and difficult to manage.

When Jo takes a bad fall from her horse while out riding the land, the colt runs off, leaving her winded, bruised, and disoriented, flat on the ground and, for a while, unable to move.  As she lies there, she begins to hear a strange and haunting melody.  Is the land singing to her?  In a lovely touch that shows just how complicated modern life can be when it comes face to face with the power of land, Lucashenko has Jo capture the sound of the hills singing to her on her phone.

Struck with longing to hear it continue, in fact for it never to end, Jo felt tears rise up in her eyes. Don’t go! she wanted to cry out to the singers, but didn’t. Instead she snatched her phone, hit the record button, held her Nokia up to the Bundjalung talga echoing off the ridge around her. Played it back, and found miraculously that centuries could talk to one another after all. I’ve got it, she marvelled, as the chant faded away to nothing, a mere whispering of leaves and the return of birds chirping and calling, I’ve got it in my pocket. She replayed the song three times, amazed and fearful and wondering. Why me, why now? What for? And above all else, what’s Twoboy gonna make of this?

Of course, when she tries to play the song for Twoboy after she stumbles back home, there is only silence on her phone.  Jo will continue to struggle with these manifestations of power emanating from the land throughout the novel.  She is pulled mysteriously westward and convinces Twoboy to accompany her on a quest to understand this call, to find an answer that will somehow help both of them achieve a resolution to their ongoing search for deeper connections to their country.  Instead, she winds up in pub brawl with a former girlfriend of Twoboy’s and the relationship suffers serious collateral damage.  As the novel moves deeper into mystical territory, another startling manifestation of unsuspected mappings of land onto body, soul, and psyche proves ever more dangerous, threaening, and impossible to resolve.  The plot is resolved with a surprise that Jo never saw coming (nor did I), but only after Jo suffers through harrowing emotional tests.

Land and law are two of the pillars on which Mullumbimby reveals itself; the third in language.  The novel is saturated with Bundjalung and Yugambeh vocabulary, along with more familiar Aboriginal English.  All the animals that inhabit the land are named in language.  The reader quickly learns that jagan means land yumba means home, and gwong means rain; relationships are parsed in Aboriginal terms as well: jahjam (child) and bunji (friend).  Jo thinks and speaks in multiple linguistic registers, just as her relationship to land is sung in multiple scales that span octaves of meaning.

Lucashenko’s accomplishment in Mullumbimby is  to keep all these narrative, thematic, and linguistic strains in a remarkable balance.  The novel reads as a straightforward tale of romance, hard work, friendship, and family.  It is realistic and as determined and pragmatic as its protagonists.  Yet it is, at the same time, elusive and mystical.  The Aboriginal languages can be as disruptive to the act of reading as the unseen legacies of the ancestors are to the daily business of mowing grass, building fences, and confronting lawyers.  It is not a novel whose experience is finished when you turn the last page; the twisting of the plot elements into a final knot of resolution is only the occasion for deeper reflection about how the tangled relationships of Goories and dugais, mothers and daughters, friends and lovers, land and ancestors create our world for us even as we strive to create it for ourselves.  Yes, Mullumbimby was well worth the wait.

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