Despite their many hardships, the family has good times, too. When May is in eighth grade, she wins the school art prize and Billy gets a job delivering milk. Sometimes Aunty has good days at the poker table and brings home Chinese food. It feels like everything is a celebration.
While the novel is unsparing in its depictions of dysfunctional family life, it also insists that such dysfunction does not preclude love and affection, and should be viewed in the context of the social ills that cause it, rather than as a sign of personal weakness.
One day, Aunty dresses up in stilettos and goes out to visit her new boyfriend. May wanders into the bathroom and looks at the “cocksucker red lipstick” she’s applied to her dark lips. Although Aunty likes her new boyfriend, May remarks that she cries all the time and she doesn’t seem like their “real Aunty” anymore. May decides to go for a walk. On her way out, she passes Billy, smoking a bong on the couch.
May’s unusually graphic description highlights the gender power imbalances that will recur several times. The possibility that a man or a bad relationship can transform a woman into something less than her “real” self is one of the novel’s key preoccupations, as well as one of May’s fears as she matures into adolescence.
May walks through their dilapidated public housing neighborhood, ironically called Paradise Parade. The neighborhood is near the water, but all the other beachfront property is slowly being turned into expensive homes, and May knows it’s only a matter of time before the government demolishes the housing project and moves its inhabitants to some less desirable suburb.
Derelict as it is, May’s neighborhood sits on valuable land, which the government will soon hand over to developers and other powerful interests, even if it means forcibly dislocating the inhabitants. The inevitable loss of valued land makes the housing project a perfect microcosm of the phenomenon of displacement that has dogged the Aboriginal community ever since the first settlers arrived and appropriated the best and most arable land for themselves.
The cycleway is the only thing that connects May to the expensive real estate on the other side of the beach. The ocean spray flies in her face and makes her feel calm. From behind a tree, May examines the cycleway and the “hard glow of suburbia” beyond. She hears screams and knows that “the lads are out” tonight.
May’s unimpressed appraisal of middle-class suburbia makes it clear that her discontent doesn’t stem from a desire to be included in Anglo-Australian society. Rather, she’s beginning to realize and resent that the dominant society won’t allow Aboriginals the freedom to live and respect their own culture.
When May was younger, she often rode down the cycleway with Billy to reach the creek where they could find crabs. As they grow older, they don’t feel they “belong on that side of the creek,” where the cycleway is painted with graffiti slogans like “fuck off, coons.”
The intrusion of new and hostile inhabitants has disrupted May’s harmonious connection with nature, just as the arrival of white settlers shattered Aboriginal society.
May decides to run alongside the path in order to reach the creek, where she won’t be seen. Up ahead, two gangs of men are fighting; one man spots May and shouts out to his friends, but they pay him no mind and May slips into the dunes to hide, telling herself that “I am invisible, I am earth, I am sand.”
Although May is cognizant of the danger she faces, she trusts in the power of nature, and her affinity with it, to shield her from harm. Its complete failure to do so is a serious challenge to her feeling of belonging within a larger natural order.
The man finds May and drops the bottle he’s carrying. She runs toward the water but trips and falls. The man puts his knife against her throat. Telling her that “this gunna show ya where ya don’t belong dumb black bitch,” he rapes her. As he takes off his shirt, the popping sound of the buttons remind May of playing with bubble wrap with Billy as a child. After the man gets up and leaves, May lies in the sand for a long time without moving. “I do not nourish,” she says.
This is a jarring scene, and it’s especially disturbing and infuriating that the rapist tells May she doesn’t belong, when in fact he is the intruder. Here, May has to grapple with the fact that her connection with nature is not impervious to brute force, a grim reality that Aboriginal Australians have lived with for generations. In fact, the rape makes her feel isolated from the nature around her; saying that she’s not “nourishing,” she emphasizes her distance from it at this moment.