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Mullumbimby, by Melissa Lucashenko.

April 24, 2014

Mullumbimby, by Melissa Lucashenko.  University of Queensland Press (2013), Kindle Edition, 288 pages.



A beautiful, brilliant novel that provides insight into the life of a contemporary Indigenous woman, raising her daughter on the lands of her Bandjalung ancestors in northern New South Wales.

Melissa Lucashenko is the daughter of Indigenous and European parents. As a child, she could pass for white, but as an adult she has committed herself to the culture and values of Indigenous Australians. In doing so she challenges the assumed normality of whiteness. Her major character in Mullumbimby, Jo Breen, faces the same problems as many single mothers; coping with her teenage daughter, working to make ends meet, and deciding if she dares fall in love with a man again. Yet her perspective is shaped by what she learned from the Indigenous aunt who raised her. At her core, she views the world from an Indigenous perspective which shapes her values and her dreams. Her views and Lukashenko’s do not romanticize Indigenous life or view it as uniformly tragic.  They simply do not take European institutions and world views as the norm.

Jo has bought a small, neglected farm near Mullumbimby. She is working hard to restore it for herself, her daughter, her siblings, and her beloved horses. For her the land and its quietness give her a welcome space, away from the clamor of other people. Her daughter, Ellen, however, has just outgrown the sweet nature of her childhood and turned into a complaining adolescent, constantly blaming and challenging her mother. Jo struggles with how to protect and nurture her in this new phase.

Jo’s life is full of crises and tragedy as well as hope and joy. Although she had never wavered in her sense of herself as Indigenous, she moves into a stronger sense of belonging to an Indigenous community. Her aunt taught her the fundamental spirituality of her people.  She can meditate into a still listening place, similar to that of Buddhists and Quakers. When she listens, she can understand what she needs to know from the world around her. Her understanding of her world is neither “magical realism” nor the one mapped by white scientists.

Understandably, anger at what the Europeans have done to her and her people runs deep in Jo. She is quick to explode over the unfairness of white domination and to blame whites for her losses. Generally, she tries to keep the white establishment at a distance. Her anger does not stop her, however, from having white individuals as friends, though she may grumble about how their whiteness limits their understanding. At times Jo feels lonely, but she has a group of close friends and two siblings who share parts of her life.

When a handsome, educated, Indigenous man enters Jo’s life, she is slow to trust him or her love for him. He obviously loves her, but he is very wrapped up in a Native Land lawsuit over some land in the area. The angry and even violent conflict among Indigenous people over these issues was something I had never realized before reading this book. At times he disappoints her, leaving her and the reader unsure if he is going to remain in her and her daughter’s lives.

In Mullumbimby, Lucashenko has written an excellent and enjoyable novel, one that will hold readers’ attention and provide new insights into what it can mean to be an Indigenous Australian today. She has accomplished this in part by following closely what Jo is thinking and doing. Although the book is not written in first person, she uses the mix of languages that Jo would have used. Frankly I often found the prose difficult to follow. As a non-Australian, I stumbled over Indigenous words and unfamiliar plants and animals. I would have done better if I had realized that there was a glossary of in the back. (Reading the novel as an ebook, I didn’t examine it as carefully as I do hard copy.) Still I am glad that Lucashenko chose to use this mix of languages. It helped me move away from the English I assume is universal and into a world where I am the outsider.

Mullumbimby will inevitably be compared with Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, as both books are now appearing in competition for literary awards. (Ironically, Lucashenko says that Wright urged her to write this novel. ) I loved and learned from both books, but they are very different. Wright’s new novel is a mythic, universal call for people to recognize what it means to be displaced as the Australian Indigenous people have been. Lucashenko writes a sharply realistic novel about a particular person and place. Her book will probably be more widely read and discussed in the Indigenous community while Wright’s will appeal more to the international literary community. Both are deeply needed and both need to be widely read.

I strongly recommend Mullumbimby to all readers, especially those interested in how people retain their identity and values on the edges of a dominant culture.

See my review of Wright’s The Swan Book here.  I also found Lucashenko’s website worth reading.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Rolfe permalink
    April 24, 2014 8:59 pm

    This book has gone to the top of my ‘to-read’ list having arrived in my email today after I listened to a very interesting radio interview yesterday – synchronicity once again! The radio interview was with a retired Jewish doctor who spent thirty years working in Aboriginal community health in Australia and has written a book called Carrots and Jaffas. His name is Howard Goldenberg and in the interview he put forward the idea that as white Australians we do not understand ‘Country’ and until we gain knowledge, reverence and respect for this land we will then fully inhabit ‘Country’. He further stated that when we reach this level of understanding we will realize that we are inhabiting ‘Blackfella Country’ and when we recognize that we will take an important step in constitutionally acknowledging this. We will then take an important step in becoming Australian ourselves. I think Melissa Lucashenko would perhaps concur with this.

    • April 25, 2014 10:16 am

      Yes, that is an interesting idea. Lucashenko would be supportive, but I think what she really wants is to be left alone, outside the white political affairs. Hope you enjoy the book.

  2. June 13, 2014 7:15 pm

    Yes, I think you’re right about Mullumbimby. I loved The Swan Book, but Mullumbimby will probably have a wider audience. What I think is marvellous about both of them and Anita Heiss’s chocLit novels (her term for chicklit with indigenous female characters) is that they are symbols of our indigenous authors moving into crafting clever, thoughtful, interesting and innovative fiction rather than recounting personal stories of suffering in memoir. Of course, of course, there is a place for both, and it is really important that these sad stories be told, but as a reader primarily of novels, I was keen to see the unique perspective of indigenous people in Australian fiction as well, and these authors are doing that brilliantly. (An analogy might be, that everything I understand about slavery comes from reading Toni Morrison, not from Solomon Northup.)
    Thanks for a thoughtful review (as always).

    • June 19, 2014 4:23 pm

      Yes, I agree. The memoirs are important, good literature does more. I have been thinking about what the difference is. Maybe good art has a touch of universality combined with the particularity of a story so that some that our emotional understand is touched as well as our intellect.
      And I love the variety of what these authors are doing.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    September 26, 2014 12:47 pm

    Oh, I love that this novel seems to bring up so many important issues in very nuanced ways! Sounds fantastic – great review.


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