Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

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.

37 comments

    • You’ve done a great job this month, getting your readers interested in reading Australian works. But I had better defend myself. I criticised Too Much Lip in my review because for me it was just another small town family drama and yet it was awarded Australia’s premier literary prize, ahead of at least one major literary work. In my comments the readers who liked it – all of them – enjoyed the grungie, Chick Lit aspects and thought that they learned something about Indigenous life. I enjoyed the grungie, Chick Lit aspects too, and yes US readers would learn something about contemporary Indigenous life (hint: it’s no much different from Poor White life). I just think the premier book of the year should be a bit special.

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      • Ahhhhh, I see what you’re saying. I almost wonder how your post would be different if instead of writing about Too Much Lip on its own that you compared it to other books you felt were strong contenders for the prize. I must confess that I don’t get into book prizes the way loads of other bloggers do. Everyone’s always massively disappointed by who won, no matter where the prize is hosted (UK, US, Australia, etc) and no matter who the judges are. Feeling disappointed yearly makes me salty, so I don’t follow those lists. I love recommendation lists (I recently found the “Zora List,” which is 100 books by black women) that I’m now looking into, and I like read-alongs, too.

        The book I’m reading now, The Silence by Susan Allott, is one I think you would enjoy. I have a hard time putting it down at night! It’s my last AusReading book.

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  1. Excellent review! This book wasn’t on my radar at all (I really should pay more attention to Australian lit, but at this point I feel like I should make a whole project of it, which feels daunting) and it sounds like a fitting award-winner. The social commentary around family, traditions, and race really appeals to me, and dialect and slang can be a fun challenge. Sorry to hear the ending fell a bit flat, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for this one on the basis of the rest. Glad you enjoyed the read! And we definitely should make ‘modern historical fiction’ a genre, that sounds much more descriptive and appropriate for a lot of social issues books set in the present that ‘contemporary’ just doesn’t quite describe satisfactorily!

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    • I jumped on board with Brona’s AusReading Month and found several new-to-me books based on what was at the library and a couple of recommendations from Bill @ The Australian Legend.

      It was mostly the last 3-5 pages where I felt a bit “meh,” yet that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book at all.

      “Social issues” could totally be a genre. I tend to call those “woke books,” which makes my friend Jackie giggle at me. But I tend to think of “woke books” as being mostly, if not only, about social justice, and that wasn’t the case with Too Much Lip.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Too Much Lip.

    I was one of those very curious to see how you would tackle all the Australian slang. I have not read the book (yet) but knew about the use of dialect. Also have to say how much I prefer the US cover to the Australian ones (both the trade paperback and the B format have covers that don’t attract me as much as yours).

    I believe that Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl) and Melissa were all writing books they considered to have very similar themes at the same time. It’s interesting to see how their individual talents took this one theme/idea in such very different directions.

    I often get caught up on classifying books and I like your modern historical fiction tag (and may use it going forward thank you!), although I would probably tag this one Indigenous Lit or even Award Winning.

    Pretty sure that Bill, Sue & Lisa have all read this book, so will be keen to read their thoughts on your thoughts as they come in 🙂

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    • I used to do a tag for non-U.S. fiction by country, but then it gets complicated when authors are from one place and then move and publish in the new country. Another reason I didn’t use Indigenous lit is because I try to keep my list of categories to around 15 so that the data makes sense at the end of the year. Otherwise, too many categories and I get a muddled pie chart.

      I do hope you read this one. I’ll reiterate that dialect is less of an issue than the slang, which you may know just from living in Australia!

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  3. “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.”

    So true. I had an intern from France who told me that her friends back home were worried about her safety when she accepted a position in the United States. She couldn’t believe we have active shooter drills at work. It’s outrageous that we accept this level of danger here.

    Too Much Lip sounds really interesting, but it’s probably too heavy for me at the moment.

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  4. Great review, you’ve summarized this book nicely and I agree with your thoughts. Like you, I really enjoyed the cultural and fantastic elements of the book, and really related to the main character. The dialect was challenging but I enjoy dialect and found the author did a good job of explaining the context so the words became clear. I agree the resolution felt a little too sudden, but I think (hope) Lucashenko isn’t suggesting that an abuser can change overnight. I felt the historical themes were really important, particularly the way abuse carries into the next generations.

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    • I was thinking less about Ken’s change and more about how Uncle Richard seemed to step up out of nowhere. The family was adrift the whole book until the final chapter or so. Why hadn’t he approached Ken earlier, and why wasn’t he the next elder after Pop died, rather than Black Superman, who didn’t even live there. I admit these may be questions I have because I’m missing something cultural, or literally missed it in the reading. There wasn’t a ton of dialect, so that was fine for me, but the slang could leave me guessing and contextualizing!

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  5. So I thought I was the only one who got excited about seeing the tile of books within the pages, but apparently not! How funny that’s a thing, I also get a little shiver of excitement when I see it. I always thought it was just me, but apparently it’s more widespread than that 🙂

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  6. You can genre tag this book whatever you want. I look forward to seeing the genre tag breakdown when you are all done this year. I hope there are some awesome new tags!

    How did this end up being one of your Australian reads? Just curious! All my Australian reads are recommendations from Bill. But I recognize I’m a Luddite when it comes to this stuff.

    Did you learn any slang you want to bring into your own life?

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    • I think after I read Hearing Maud, which was recommended by Bill because he knows the author, that Goodreads was like, “Hey, check out these other Australian books!”

      I’m definitely not going to use any slang they used because I have no idea what the connotation is, and in what context, and by whom it is said. For instance, the main character calls all Aboriginal people “blackfella,” including women. I looked that word up to see if it had a gender connotation, and the internet basically said, “you in dangerous waters, girl.”

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  7. Great review! This book sounds really interesting and not one I’d heard of before you mentioned it. I actually laughed at your gun comment because I don’t think that is something that would ever occur to me. I’m way more likely to read/watch American media and wonder why a seemingly normal person owns a gun.

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    • You blink at someone funny in their own yard in the U.S., and they’ll pull a gun. We’re having a national debate right now about whether police have to knock before entering your home, if they have to announce themselves, and if they can do all that in the middle of the night when you’re sleeping. Plus, Americans own guns. It’s a very, very, very stupid mix of laws.

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      • That’s an argument? I knew that it was happening but I didn’t know people were really defending the idea that police could just come into your house while you were asleep. I grew up in the city where no one owns a gun (unless you’re in a gang and then you’re participating in a myriad of crimes) so I had to get used to more rural living where people here will sometimes own guns for hunting. But you never ever see them and people don’t talk about it very often. Our countries are so alike in so many ways and then so drastically different in others!

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  8. A really enjoyable review Melanie. I don’t quite know where to start – partly because you raise so many issues, and partly because it’s many months since I read the book.

    Re the slang, I have to say that we Aussies had to go with the flow too, because she – purposefully – uses a lot of Indigenous language and Indigenous colloquial language, much of which can also be local to her region, so not familiar to other Australians. However, I found that the context made it all clear.

    “Too much lip” though is more general slang. I think you got it, but just to be sure, it’s not so much about “how much you talk” but about being “too” cheeky when you do talk. Kerry may not talk a lot, but when she does she talks back, she doesn’t take things lying down, she’s “too lippy”.

    One of the things I really loved about this book was that Lucashenko is prepared to show the dark side of contemporary Indigenous culture – the dysfunction and violence. She feared backlash for this, which she didn’t get. She makes clear that the long impact of dispossession and intergenerational trauma is behind it but still, she shows it. I also loved what a flawed by engaging character Kerry is.

    Re Uncle Richard. It’s a while since I’ve read it but as I recollect, his not jumping in quickly was partly because he didn’t live in that community, and partly because his main role was in another branch of the family. I think he really only got involved when he was asked in. (Or am I misremembering?)

    And, I loved your perspective on guns! You made me laugh about the tattooing gun.

    PS, as you can see, I don’t agree with Bill’s hard take on this novel. I’m truly sorry he missed its cleverness!!

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    • I seem to remember Uncle Richard appearing at Pop’s funeral and then again at the birthday party, but other than that, there isn’t much about him. Perhaps there could have been more about his role in the community and how far away he lived from Kerry’s family, which would impede his role as a leader to them?

      I knew that “too much lip” meant that she was sassy when she spoke, but I had this idea that she would be a sassy loudmouth the entire novel, so her relative silence stuck out to me. Anything the said seemed to be too much for Ken anyway!

      Interestingly, I have a fair understand of displaced communities because I technically grew up on a Native American reservation (my family is white). Although the community is/was trying to capture the culture before it is lost, I don’t know that it is a winning battle. The language, for instance, is dying out, and reservations are so intermingled with the rest of the city that there is much different in the way people speak. It was interesting to read how Kerry’s family had different slang and expressions from the white community.

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      • Thanks Melanie. I thought Uncle Richard’s position was clear, but as I said it’s been a while. I understand, now, what was behind your comment on the “too much lip”.

        Re Native Americans, I often say to people here that equating our Indigenous Australians with African Americans is not really accurate, that they are better equated with Native Americans, those there before the settlers (not those brought in by the settlers.) What an interesting growing up you must have had, btw.

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  9. This is one I’ve wanted to read since WG and ANZLL started talking about it (and then Bill waded in, but not so enthusiastically, as you’ve pointed out). Our library did buy a single copy for reference only (and it’s too long to read in the library, even when going to the library was “a thing”). I think they’re ordered more since, so maybe I’ll get to it eventually. Your wondering about the title reminded me of another writer (I think it might have been Tomson Highway) who wrote about the importance of gesturing with one’s lips. There is a short video here with one woman’s reminiscence about that, but I have heard there are other indigenous groups who do this as well.

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  10. Oh, sorry…I didn’t mean to add that video directly to your page: that’s interesting functionality. Feel free to watch and delete!

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    • Okay, I did not know that is a feature either, but it’s really cool! I’m leaving the video up. That story was great. The Ojibwe people have such a huge tribe. I lived on one of their reservations (I guess the land was sold to white people?? I don’t know; my parents’ house is in the boundaries of the reservation, but we are not Ojibwe).

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      • That sounds so complicated and interesting. Have you been able to/Are you curious about exploring the treaty agreements that would have been (maybe “should have been”?) involved. A few years ago, I did some research like that, but only to figure out who was originally inhabiting the land I’m currently perching on in Toronto (Tkaronto), not because of a deed. It’s interesting to me that you use Ojibwe; I thought Chippewa was the Anglo term standardly used south of the current border (I think it’s Anishnaabeg in their language?).

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        • The tribe where I grew up is officially called the Sagniaw Chippewa Ojibwe tribe, so they use all of them. Chippewa, where I’m from, typically refers to the name for the college students who attend Central Michigan University, whose mascot/nickname of Chippewa is endorsed by the local tribe. CMU also offers Ojibwe (listed as Ojibwe) as a language of study, too, so I’m assuming there are loads of connections between the campus and the local tribe. I’ve definitely heard that Anishinaabe is the name of the language, but where I lived it was just called Ojibwe.

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          • Did you know there’s even apps on your phone that help you learn the languages now? (Anishnabemowin, I think) I’ve not tried it, but I do subscribe to the Unreserved podcast on CBC (*giggles* thinking about our other convo) and they have a periodic spotlight on indigenous people who bring a handful of words and offer the translations and why they selected these words as important to them and ones they wanted to share), under ten minutes and so interesting. Um, interesting for language and word geeks, maybe?

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