Love Like Water

by Meme McDonald

Published by Allen & Unwin

360 pages, 2007




Home in the Desert

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski


Meme McDonald’s young adult trilogy, My Girragundji, The Binna Binna Man and Ngunjul The Sun, all written with Boori Monty Pryor, were coming-of-age stories centred around a young Aboriginal boy in present-day Australia. In Love Like Water, also on Aboriginal themes, the author travels back in time to the early 1980s.

The story takes place in Alice Springs, in Australia's Northern Territory. It is before the Mabo Agreement, which acknowledged native title. Alice Springs is home to people who come and go. Nobody seems to be native to the area, with the exception of the local Aborigines, many of whom live along the riverbed.

Among those coming from outside are Cathy, daughter of a rural family in outback Queensland, her school friend Margie and Jay, a city-born DJ, who has come to work at the local indigenous radio station. Even Cathy’s employer, Max, who runs the local pub, has come from elsewhere. Cathy has left home because she lost her fiancé in a plane accident. Jay, who has travelled around, is no more at home in Alice Springs than she is. We are reminded that there are many Aboriginal cultures in Australia and that a man from "saltwater" country, like Jay, is not in his own world in the desert country in which he is now living. However, his cultural background makes it natural for him to ensure he always has a little money to give the "bruz" or "cuz" or "sis" who needs something till pension day, wherever he is.

In this place, an unlikely romance blooms between Jay and Cathy. It isn’t Romeo and Juliet and nobody lynches them. Both of them have needs that the other fulfils. Jay is an urbanite, who actually prefers white girls because indigenous girls can see through him. Still, he’s kind-hearted. He expresses himself with hugs, as much a part of his own personality as cultural. And he refuses to be a victim, though he has family members who have been.

Cathy needs a breathing space before deciding what to do with her life. Jay’s hugs and more are just what she needs.

In the end, the novel is about home, and people who don’t have one. For Cathy, where she comes from is no longer home, really. This is made clear to her when she travels with Margie to attend the Bachelor and Spinster Ball at the invitation of a young man with whom she grew up. Margie, a city girl, is yearning for a home with a man she can love. She always believes that this time it's love. By the end of the novel, Margie has her wish: but it's not the sort of home that would suit Cathy.

Billy, the boy from her home town is no longer at home either, and feeling it. He can't inherit the property and has had to move out. Jay, despite being indigenous, has come to live somewhere outside his own coastal homeland. At one point in the story, when he and Cathy are camping out near Uluru, she is more comfortable in the desert than he is, and he teases her: "I know what you’re thinking .... You're thinking, who's the blackfella now, aren't you, smarty pants?" To which she replies, "Well, who's the one needs insect repellent and cappuccinos?"

Home in this novel is more complex than it might seem; the author refuses to follow clichés.

The language is beautiful. From the opening page, the reader can feel the heat of Alice Springs and the characters are people you care about.

This novel was published by Allen and Unwin's children's/YA section. While the characters are in their 20s, they still have concerns that young adults just starting out in life might have and it should be enjoyed by teenagers near the end of their school life. Highly recommended. | April 2007


Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at and a review/SF blog at She lives in Australia.