Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko is an award-winning novel out of Australia. Both the author and the characters are of Bundjalung and European heritage. Kerry is the main character. She’s an Aboriginal lesbian with dark skin, which is important because her siblings vary in darkness (I was reminded of Malcolm X and his siblings, described from dark black to light to reddish in skin tone). Based on the darkness of the siblings’ skin, they are treated differently by family and society.
Too Much Lip opens with Kerry riding into the tiny town of Durrongo on a Harley (an odd symbol of America’s obsession with brands, but okay). Her grandfather, whom they call Pop, is dying. Stay just until he’s dead, Kerry promises herself, then she’s outta there. Except novels about people returning to small hometowns never end with the character leaving when they want because families are complicated.
There’s Ken, who is Kerry’s older brother. He’s prone to violence and threats of violence when challenged and never has a job but always promises to fix up the junker cars in the yard that he collects in the hopes of making quick cash. Pretty Mary also lives in the house. She’s their mother. One of Ken’s children live there, too. There are two other siblings, both important but don’t live in the house, but I don’t have space to get into all the family dynamics.
What is important is Ava’s Island. The story goes that Great-granny Ava was fleeing white men. Despite being eight months pregnant, she jumps in a river to swim to an island for escape. And yet she is shot. By dragging herself on the banks of the island using the roots of a tree, the rest of the family can be born and exists. Legend has it the baby is born with a gun shot wound in the arm, shaped like the Union Jack. Every so often, someone in the family is born with that same mark (and are more than happy to yank up their clothes to show you).
While Kerry is in Durrongo, she figures she’ll return to Granny Ava’s island, tree, and river, which Kerry loved as a child. But when the town mayor, a white man, pulls up in his truck with a stranger, Kerry hides. She has warrants and doesn’t need trouble. We learn that the mayor wants to sell Granny Ava’s island to a company that will build a prison there. Though he’s not supposed to make money as a realtor while mayor, that doesn’t stop him. Money’s money, and white people having been stealing Aboriginal land for generations.
I realized just how American I am when I kept wondering, “Where are Ken’s guns??” Had this book been set in the U.S. of A. about ten people would have been shot by the last page. Ken would have a gun, threaten to use it every time Kerry spoke or his son didn’t fast enough, would likely use it on the mayor, or perhaps himself. They mayor would have guns in his truck and office. Kerry would have a cute “girl gun” for her purse, and her boyfriend, Steve, would have one to protect his gym when he sleeps there. When a gun finally comes out, I thought, “See??? Guns are global!” only to learn that it was Ken’s tattooing gun.
I entered this book as a straight woman in the United States whose heritage is something like white bread. Kerry is an Aboriginal, a self-identified lesbian, and Australian. In previous posts, Australian bloggers have wondered how I would get on with Too Much Lip and the language. Although there is some dialect, that’s easy enough to read. As Midwesterners, we fail to enunciate loads of words, and as a result, my grasp of dialect is often pretty solid. Books like Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston never gave me problems.
But beyond the dialect is the boatload of slang. Here’s all the Australian slang I know: “Fair dinkum tasty.” Chef Adriano Zumbo said that on a show called Sugar Rush on Netflix. I assume he means, “Super duper tasty.” But boy howdy, there’s a lot of slang. For instance, “Black doob don’t have to be guilty of nothing to have the booliman after her, brah.” Thankfully, I read all five of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting novels, and once you learn the rhythm, poetry, and “groove” of slang, it seems to translate to wherever. A discerning reader will slowly learn the new words and begin to understand the conversations. If you’ve ever picked up a dialect- or slang-heavy book and felt like you couldn’t get your head above water, you may not enjoy Too Much Lip.
You ever get excited when you’re watching a movie and an actor finally says the name of the film? I do the same thing with books. The couple of references to “too much lip” refer to Kerry, but interestingly, she doesn’t talk as much as I thought she would. Since the novel is narrated in third-person limited omniscient, we’re mostly in Kerry’s head (though we do briefly creep around with a few other characters). She has plenty of thoughts, and she will mutter, but she’s not saying half of what she’s thinking. Instead, her brother and others who want her silent tell her she’s too mouthy. I thought author Melissa Lucashenko was rather clever here. You’re primed to enter the novel thinking Kerry is going to be a big-mouth, but she really isn’t: she’s justifiably angry. If anything, the character who needs to listen more than speak is Ken, the domineering, threatening brother.
Thanks to Unconventional Means by Anne Richardson Williams, I learned about some Aboriginal traditions and stories, such as animals and ancestors assisting people. That does happen. I was less happy about how the ending wrapped up with a human stepping into a leadership position. After Pop dies, Kerry’s family seems like a boat lost at sea. Why wait until the final chapter for someone to step in and say enough of the nonsense; there is so much healing to be done? This person does not grow into the role, but simply steps up in the pages and is.
Despite the ending, I had a blast reading Too Much Lip. When I went to add a genre tag to it in my spreadsheets (shush, you) I had a hard time deciding where it would fit. For me, that’s typically an indication that it’s a “literary novel,” a term I loathe and yet “get.” This isn’t fiction about women, it’s not fantasy, and I don’t think the term “contemporary fiction” really means much in way of genre. If anything Too Much Lip is a sort of modern historical fiction? The emphasis is on history and heritage, but told in the present. Is that a thing? It’s a thing now.