"Everything changes, Jo thought, as the current carried her mentally upriver to the fresh water, but not at random. There's a deep system and order to it, because everything is forever turning into its own opposite. Swimming fish becoming flying hawk. Swift hawk dying and decaying into solid earth. Earth reaching skyward as trees, turning to fruits and honey and flowers, falling back down again as leaves. Everything in the world was shapeshifting around her, every moment of every day. Nothing remained as it was."
I loved this book. Melissa Lucashenko wrote it as an "ode to country." While she was writing the manuscript, fellow indigenous writer Alexis Wright told her it should be a "hymn to the ancestors" (see Radio National's Books and Arts Daily review from early 2013). The feel of both of those sentiments runs like water throughout this novel for me.
As a whitey, reading a novel set in Queensland, a few thousand k's away from me both geographically and otherwise, I feel a rather keen sense of jealousy, running alongside a feeling of kinship, alongside a conscious need to check my romanticism. I also feel a sense of defensiveness. Don't lump me in with those who don't give a shit, because while the songlines are not mine, on wilder whimsy days I fancy I can feel the echo of them through suburban concrete, even if I wouldn't understand them. Or at least perhaps I'd just like to think so, grasping for some sense of place and solidarity in a country that's seeped itself into my bones in my 43 travels round the sun, but which is not of my extended heritage. I still feel that disconnect.
I have the requisite collection of a couple of ancestors transported here for stealing meat to feed their starving brothers and sisters, along with a gaggle of settlers, but go back five generations and all of my roots dig down into UK and Guernsey Islands soils. Places I haven't even visited. Australia is my home, though this book reminds me that so much of it is still alien and not-yet-known to me in comparison to the ancestors of those who can lay claim to hundreds of thousands of years of custodianship.
Bill Gammage, in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth, opened my eyes up to a little of that a couple of years ago. He spells out in detail the intricacies of the land that were known to those original custodians. How early settlers described the land as akin to the parkland of a manor house, it was that well-ordered. That the land and its inhabitants were understood and managed to such a degree that fire-sensitive trees and shrubs lived next door to fire-retardant ones, that fire management practices were ongoing, structured and complex, not written down in books or on websites, but passed along via generation-to-generation knowledge.
For the first time in her life, the novel's protagonist, Jo Breen, owns the land she lives on. After a messy and traumatic divorce, she buys 20 acres of farmland 20 k's inland from Byron Bay on New South Wales's North Coast. She's moved to Bundjalung land, the land of her ancestors, from Brisbane with her 13 year old daughter, Ellen.
Then Jo meets Twoboy, a looker with dreads who takes her fancy the first time she sees him raunch out of a bookstore with a book under his arm. Not only a spunk, but Bunjalung, smart as, who's moved back here with his brother up from where he's been studying law in Melbourne. They're going for a Native Title claim and are about to learn a little more about the cost of reclaiming what's been lost and how some bodies carry that cost in themselves.
Lucashenko is so deft with language and in Jo she creates such a likeable character who is both down to earth but smart and sassy: "She gazed out over the saltwater, where a distant late-season whale was spouting. A crow perched in the nearby lemon-scented gums, directly above a plaque proclaiming that somebody Devine had discovered this place. Jo would normally have been delighted to see that the crow had crapped purple fig-seeded bullshit all over this spurious claim."
This book is about dualities. About the ways language is used as a tool, as a proof of identity. About barbed wire spaced throughout land once stolen, fences which keep out or keep in. It is about misconceptions, on both sides of the black and white divide, and about generosity. It is about a familiar Australia and a foreign one. The dugais (whites) Jo meets out on the roads are dim and stupid and disconnected. A woman with a camera stops to take an unasked photo of Jo on her horse and then speeds off, without even the consideration of showing her what she's taken. Idiots driving around in Hummers with "Support our Troops" stickers.
If I wax a little romantic about this book, then forgive me my perceived weakness. It's only because in the Australia of my currency, spirituality - even if it's earth-based - is still something of an embarrassment, to be kept private, an internal state unrelated to the outer world. But Jo hangs easy with an unabashed earthy spirituality that is all about the land that is alive, that speaks back, and it makes me sink in. Like it's safe to see the land in this way, even while I look over my shoulder, waiting for snide remarks about my floweriness. The cynicism and alienation of 21st century Westerners hangs around my head like Fukushima.
Here, on the one hand DJ's child learns to count using ugari (shellfish) shells "which the full moon had left in its wake" while on the other Humbug is locked up and belted in the cells for D&D. Here, I smell a scent of people who are a little closer than mine to remembering that they belong to the earth. People who rather than "go out" with a bang or anything else, "go in" when they die.
And yet this isn't a modern "noble savage" kind of story by any means. Lucashenko's characters are layered and contradictory and judgmental, sometimes believing caricatures, not always what they seem, sometimes surprising and sometimes plain batshit annoying, regardless of their heritage.
Of course, the bitter irony is that I am jealous of the belonging of a people to land which for many of them is something they're relearning themselves, putting together pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, vast patches of songlines still unknown or lost forever. Some people don't understand why January 26 is being made political by some. This is the reason for me.
2014 Stella Prize. This review is part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.