Love Like Water, by Meme McDonald.
Love Like Water, by Meme McDonald. Allen & Unwin (2008), Paperback, 360 pages.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS
A wise and sensitive story about young people searching for their places in the world and falling in love, a love complicated by their racial difference.
Love is Like Water is a love story and much more. The book’s cover plays up the fact that it is about love between a black man and a white woman, but love is only part of the larger story of individuals searching for self-knowledge and self-acceptance. The author uses the couple’s complicated relationship as a way of writing about what it means for a woman off a Queensland ranch to be alone in the world and for an Indigenous man to be proud of his heritage but scared by the pain that he and those he loves have suffered. The result is a beautifully told story with important resonances in our world.
Meme McDonald is a woman of European descent who grew up on a ranch in western Queensland. She has become involved in teaching about Indigenous cultures, often involving children in preserving their traditions in song, dance and photography. In the process she has worked with Boori Monty Pryor, an Indigenous storyteller with whom she has collaborated on various books and projects. Working with him and other Indigenous people, she has developed the insight into their experiences which she uses in her portrayal of Indigenous culture and pain. McDonald is a fine example of how a white person steeped in another culture can write about it with dignity and sensitivity. To learn more of her various projects check out her website and this interview.
In Love Like Water, Cathy is a young woman who, like MacDonald, grew up in the ranching company of western Queensland and knows about droughts and self-reliance. When the man she planned to marry is killed in a crop-dusting accident, she has to move on. Her father’s land will go to her brother, of course, and she must find something else for herself. Leaving home she must discover who she is and what she wants for her life. Marge, a friend from boarding school, convinces Cathy to come with her to Alice Springs where Marge has taken a nurse’s training job. Marge is bold, loud, and confident, very different from Cathy, but the two have bonds strong enough to withstand their differences. Cathy takes a job as a barmaid in the local hotel and several men find her attractive. Yet Jay, the DJ at the Indigenous radio station, is one with whom she forms the deepest bonds.
The image of love being like water is articulated in different ways throughout the book. Like water, love is an essential, life-giving force, but not one that can be held in one’s hand. The dry riverbed and the hopelessness of the people who live there provide the backdrop for the emergence of love between Jay and Cathy. But unlike so many books of romance, love is not the answer to all life’s problems. A person must learn to know and love oneself before trying to love someone else.
McDonald brings a strong sense of place to her writing, undoubtedly strengthened by her involvement with Indigenous people. Being a desert person myself, I loved her deep, rich descriptions of the region around Alice Springs, its heat and drought and its allure. McDonald brings the same attention to the details of her characters. She writes about Jay, the principle Indigenous character, with sensitivity and respect. Although he is a “city boy,” he is deeply committed to his family and his heritage. Respectful of tribal differences, he never presumes upon the Indigenous people around Alice Springs. He can be charming and prefers to hug people rather than fight them, but buried within he carries grief and pain that can explode into anger. He and Cathy face the prejudice of others, but more deeply they come into their relationship with differences as well as what they share.
This book is listed by its publisher as for young adults. I suspect that calling it a YA book relates to the books McDonald has written for children and her extensive work in schools. While this book will be attractive to YA readers, it need not be limited to them. Its story is one that will hold the attention of adult readers as well, because it is well-written and deals in a complex and mature manner with racial issues. I have read several novels recently which center on personal love coming in conflict with family loyalty and tradition, but this is the best of them. I am not sure why.
Love like Water is an excellent novel, one I recommend strongly to a variety of readers. As a non-Australian, I learned a great deal about the continent and its racial tensions, somewhat unlike those I see in the USA. McDonald is a delightful writer, wise without ever being polemic. This is a novel to be read for strength and for hope.