By Melissa LucashenkoFiction University of Queensland Press
Too Much Lip
Too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger.
Wise-cracking Kerry Salter has spent a lifetime avoiding two things – her hometown and prison. But now her Pop is dying and she’s an inch away from the lockup, so she heads south on a stolen Harley.
Kerry plans to spend twenty-four hours, tops, over the border. She quickly discovers, though, that Bundjalung country has a funny way of grabbing on to people. Old family wounds open as the Salters fight to stop the development of their beloved river. And the unexpected arrival on the scene of a good-looking dugai fella intent on loving her up only adds more trouble – but then trouble is Kerry’s middle name.
Gritty and darkly hilarious, Too Much Lip offers redemption and forgiveness where none seems possible.
Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip is a blistering and profoundly moving depiction of one family’s ability to survive intergenerational trauma, which displays all the wit, generosity and eye-opening forthrightness that is associated with the writer’s formidable work.
In Kerry Salter, Lucashenko has created a vivid and warm depiction of a straight-shooting, tough-as-nails prodigal daughter who roars back into her hometown in Northern New South Wales on a stolen Harley Davidson. Kerry plans to briefly visit her boisterously dysfunctional family’s dying patriarch, and to lay low there before hoisting herself ‘quick bloody smart’ back over the border to Queensland. But Bundjalung country has other plans for Kerry, and she soon finds herself drawn into the tragic secrets of her family’s past, and the politics of the small town, whose crook mayor is eyeing the Salter’s sacred ancestral site for real-estate development.
All Lucashenko’s gifts for characterisation and cracking dialogue are on display here. Kerry and the members of her family – from ‘alpha dickhead’ older brother Ken to Kerry’s weary but resilient mum, to the caustically funny younger brother, ‘Black Superman’ – are each so distinctively drawn, and also distinctively messed up by the violence that forms the bedrock of her family’s past. No character’s pretension goes unskewered, but the novel’s keen satire is also rounded out by Lucashenko’s generous psychological acuity and understanding that all the posturing, rage, deflection and denial can form the protective armour needed to survive an ugly and brutal history that has poisoned this family tree at its very root.
There are tough, complex issues explored here: domestic and institutional abuse, dispossession, land rights, incarceration, racism, and poverty to name just a few, but Lucashenko masterfully balances the heavy weight of them, and deftly weaves each thread into the plot without losing the story’s narrative thrust or emotional resonance. Ultimately, it is a transcendent story of strength and healing in the face of overwhelming adversity that glitters with the wild, darkly comic humour of survivors of violence.
Kerry floated on her back in the Caledonian River, looking skyward through the limbs of Granny Ava’s hoop pine. The oldest tree on Ava’s Island was a giant, throwing shade across the entire width of the river. All the years Kerry had been away, this place was where her mind had flown to. Many a night at Trinder Park or at Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre had really been spent beneath Granny Ava’s pine. Not dozens, or hundreds, but thousands of times she had come in her imagination to this spot on the island where the fruit bats nested and where cormorants perched on fallen logs, their wings high, surrendering to invisible enemies. The family had practically lived here when Granny Ruth was still around. In and out of the river all day long. Cooking snags on little fires; yabbying and fishing the summer away. Taking fallen blossoms and pretty shells to Granny Ava’s grave, hidden in the forest alongside where her husband, Grandad Chinky Joe, lay with only a plain piece of granite to mark his passing. And none of them knowing, back then, that Granny Ruth would be lost to the Richmond River in ’91, and would never lie here beside her parents the way she should have.
Kerry gazed up at the geometric shapes made by the crossed branches of the hoop pine and the neighbouring gums. Around her she could hear the swirling fresh water brushing against the river stones before it spiralled away downstream, and the pock pock of native frogs deep in philosophy. If anywhere had healed her, it was this place; the Salter holy water flowed past Mount Monk and Durrongo, on down the flood plain through Patterson and then across to the ocean at faraway Brunswick Heads. Her native church was built right here of rock and sand and feather and bark and moss. Bless me Father, she thought as the water lapped her temples, for I have gone to the city and sinned there, and then sinned some more by not returning home. Not that she believed in sin. Not really, not like Pretty Mary did. People did what they needed to to survive, that’s all. Or what they thought they had to. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes it wasn’t. And sometimes the planets went berserk and a little blue backpack sailed over a hedge into your waiting arms, and everything went to the shithouse, real fast.
On the bank opposite, Donny squatted on a boulder, throwing twigs into the water and watching them bob on the current that would turn in another hour and begin drifting back downstream to the distant coast. Kerry could clearly see each of her neph’s individual ribs where they met his jutting vertebrae. Squatting there blond-headed with his knees under his chin, looking into the water and shadowed dark by the eucalypts, he looked like a photo of some skinny old-time desert blackfella. But Donny wasn’t gaunt from desert genetics and drought. He was just an innocent bag of Goorie bones looking for a reason to exist. Kerry felt a surge of something like hatred for Ken. But you can’t make somebody love their kids. Can’t grab a forty-year-old thug and shake paternal feeling into him. And the thinner and weaker Donny got, the more harshly Ken would judge him. If the lad was a tattooed car thief with a smart mouth and a police record, Ken might take him to the pub, show him off with an arm slung around his neck. But Donny was a social liability in Durrongo: too quiet, too gentle. Too interested in insects and birds, until the time Ken had thrown all his ornithology CDs on the fire one June morning in a rage, calling him a piss-weak little white cunt who needed to get a life. After that, Donny shrank into his computer, where he was safe, and where Ken couldn’t reach him with his sarcasm. A computer was a coffin you crawled into to wait for death, Kerry thought, consumed with guilt that she had not been around, even after Pretty Mary rang in a state and told her about the CDs. But she was here now. She would make the kid come swimming and fishing, and for long rides on the Harley, force him to be in the world. Hug him and love him up until he remembered who he really was. Until he somehow found somewhere it was safe to be Donny.
Untroubled by any such human angst, a magpie carolled from the next bend, and was answered by its mate standing on the grassy bank, watching Kerry turn with the current.
The boy looked up at her. ‘That magpie – male or female?’
Donny didn’t need to look. ‘Daughter to the other one.’
Kerry laughed in genuine delight. ‘You da man, Donny. You da man!’
A faint change in expression; something in the vicinity of a smile. ‘Real pretty here, eh, punyarra jagan? Don’t ya reckon?’
Donny shrugged, then changed his mind, nodded. ‘Yeah. It’s nice. Peaceful.’
‘Them Old People’s looking out for us, I can feel Granny Ava watching. I’d be here every day if I was you, growing gills.’
Silence. Kerry waited a few moments, then rolled face down to hold her breath as long as she could, watching the blurry wet world go by beneath her.
The bend on the river was the most sacred place the Salters knew. Right there, she thought, where the shadow of the hoop pine is blackening the water and the sand. That’s where Granny Ava swam to save two lives, and made it, and now here we all are. If there had been no hoop pine root there to pull herself out of the river by. Had the resident bull sharks been less agreeable that day. Had the horses of the dugai been more willing to enter the cold August water. Any of these, and there would be no Kerry floating in the sun, gazing down at the silver flashes of school mullet beneath her. No Granny Ruth, no Pretty Mary, no Ken, no Black Superman, no Donny, no nobody. There’s a pretty simple lesson then: when the men with guns come after you, you go and you go fucking hard and you don’t look back. Kerry remembered the moment she first heard her great-grandmother’s legend. Nine years old, in the corner of the front veranda, forgotten with her head in a comic book. Aunty Tall Mary, who was helping to shell peas on the front steps, had been talking about the Yugambeh massacres further north. How the mob feasted by invitation on poisoned flour at Mudgeeraba, and how these days butter wouldn’t melt in the white descendants’ mouths.
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