Mullumbimby is a humorous, heartfelt, occasionally abrasive and brave work by a writer with an acute ear for language, an eye for subtle beauty, and a nose honed to sniff bullshit at a thousand paces. A sculptural work, produced by the author and photographed for the cover of the novel, is a bird’s nest, crafted from twigs, various grasses, and earth. It conveys a sense of sanctuary and genuine protection (as opposed to the institutional and violent ‘protection’ Indigenous people have been subject to throughout colonial occupation). But look a little closer at the image and you will notice that the nest is woven into a thorny crown of rusting barbed wire; a simple but effective invention that for the past one hundred and fifty years has maimed, ensnared, and enclosed animals, people, and land.
The image, weighty with symbolism, is also relevant to the story. Jo Breen, the protagonist of Mullumbimby, is a single mother, Goorie (an Aboriginal person from far northern New South Wales or south-eastern Australia), and as tough and stubborn as her increasingly free-thinking teenage daughter, Ellen. Jo is also, as the nurturing environment of the nest evokes, fiercely protective of her family, warm, and generous. She takes no prisoners in defending her family, her identity, her culture, her (freehold) piece of land, and her beloved animals.
When we first meet Jo, she is tending the grass between the graves at the cemetery, a place where the local Dugai (whitefellas) are not only buried but commemorated and remembered with certainty, while Jo’s own legitimacy as an Aboriginal woman, and the legitimacy of Aboriginal history and culture more generally, remain suspect. Her relationship to land, expressed throughout the novel, is conveyed through the struggles and community disputes erupting as a consequence of Native Title, white Australia’s arrogant coveting of land, and the daily interaction with and immersion in land, experienced in an at times visceral manner by Jo, through blood, mud, tears, and death. She also knows the land spiritually, not so much in words but intuitively and organically. An inspirational aspect of Jo Breen’s connection to land is that it is a lived experience, absorbed by her with respectful humility.
The novel ranges over tough issues, such as who is a ‘real Aborigine’? It deals with the fractious consequences of Native Title legislation, domestic violence, and the spectre of child abuse. In the hands of a lesser writer, the outcome could have been a didactic and polemical work. Instead, Lucashenko has produced a story suffused with dark humour (half a pun intended), emotion, and sensuality. It involves an ensemble cast of misfits, both black and white, human and non-human animals, the living and the revered dead. It is both a funny and sad novel, endearing and abrasive.
Jo is a wonderfully rounded character. While it appears that she might be about to bite off the nearest head at any moment, she is much smarter than that. She knows who and when to bite, when to comfort, and when to love. She also knows a good-looking and (potentially dangerous) catch when she sees one; such as Twoboy, the handsome, dreadlocked Aboriginal man who suddenly turns up from down south, to lay claim to his ancestral land; a man who, like many characters in the novel, defies stereotype (‘fuck me sideways he’s carrying a book’).
References to literature and books appear at important moments in the novel. While Dugai outsiders may dismiss Jo as a poorly educated, uncultured ‘fringe-dweller’, she is not only invested in and always learning from her own culture, but she also knows the whitefella stuff thank-you-very-much, such as quoting Walt Whitman. The complexity of her personality is vital to the success of the book. Jo is a whole person. She is fully dimensional as opposed to an Aboriginal caricature or the walking, talking cliché of a comfortable whitefella Dreaming we are often exposed to.
While the novel is written with an ear for the vernacular, Lucashenko is a fine literary writer. The ‘mongrel’ ingredients of Indigenous language, Aboriginal English, and a regional collective slang produce an aural and visual poetry. Language is used to heighten drama, as well as to offer poignancy and comic relief, a humanist quality of the book. There is a longish scene in the novel, written with such craft that I have already gone over the passage several times. To avoid a spoiler, I will not discuss the scene in detail. It involves Jo in her search for one of her loved horses, Comet. When, desperately looking for her horse, she searches the farm after heavy rain, we are drawn into the search with her and share Jo’s frustration, anger, and sadness.
Melissa Lucashenko is an intelligent writer who, with Mullumbimby, has gifted readers an opportunity. Race relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia are a difficult issue to comprehend, while attempting to comprehend relations within Aboriginal communities is an equally difficult terrain to navigate. This book will most likely leave you laughing and crying at the same time. As importantly, it will leave you thinking.