Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Lucky Galah
By Tracy Sorensen
ISBN: 9781760552657, Trade Paperback, 27/02/2018, 304 pages, $29.99
Most people are aware of the role that the Parkes radio telescope played during the Apollo 11 moon landings, particularly after the 2000 film The Dish was made about it. However, the Dish was just one of many radio telescopes established in Australia in the 1960s as part of the Deep Space Network. There was Island Lagoon in South Australia, Tidbinbilla and Honeysuckle Creek in Canberra, and the Muchea and the Carnarvon Tracking Stations in Western Australia. Carnavon, where author Tracy Sorensen grew up, was commissioned in 1964 and operated for 11 years right through the landings. In 1969, on the day of the landings, Armstrong’s first steps on the moon were relayed from Carnavon to television audiences in Perth via Honeysuckle Creek. Sorensen takes this little known piece of history, something she probably grew up knowing, and uses it to craft her beautiful story. The Lucky Galah is set primarily in 1969, and is narrated by Lucky, a domesticated Galah. It may seem like a quirky idea to make the narrator of your novel a Galah, but Sorensen pulls it off brilliantly. Lucky is well-characterised, with just the right combination of anthropomorphism, and a charm that is wholly birdlike and yet entirely relatable to mammalians as Lucky calls us. Lucky is a natural born storyteller with her own story that is woven through the other stories in the book. Sorensen does a beautiful job of creating dramatic irony as the reader gets to hear the stories that Lucky can’t tell, being that she only speaks bird and a simplified version of English along the lines of “Hello Cocky”. We hear it all, including the personal confessions that are relayed to Lucky, as they are to all Galahs in a strange quirk, via the radio telescope transmissions.
Part of Lucky’s storytelling involves the Johnson family, who move to the fictional town of Port Badminton from Melbourne, so Evan, a radar technician, is able to take a dream job working with NASA on the moon project. While Evan gets stuck into his job, Evan’s wife Linda struggles to settle in this small-town, though she does form an odd relationship with Marj Kelly, a seamstress whose husband initially captured Lucky from the wild. Lucky provides an insightful perspective on these very different families and their transition through the changing world of the late 1960s/early 70s. The book is a blend of historical fact, human frailty, and even animal/human dynamics in a way that never is anything other than charming and engaging. There is something revealed about the human condition in Lucky’s predicament, but also perhaps about the way in which humans and their pets interact and about the nature of wildness versus tameness – a theme that is repeated in different forms throughout the book:
Can I even call myself a bird? Can one so reliant on supermarket food, books and television really be called a bird? You may feel moved to reassure me that I had no choice but to abandon my birdness. That the hand of fate overwhelmed personal choices. But there have been times—quite a few times—when I might have flown. (168)
The small town of Port Badminton becomes every small town, and the dynamics of its inhabitants are both familiar and the perfect combination of nostalgic and harsh. We feel the stifling nature of the women’s roles which are contrasted against the excitement of the scientists in the book, all the while the book maintains a deep humour. Lucky’s taste for books for example, is quite funny, as she imbibe the wisdom of the books her carer Lizzie buys for her, conflating eating and reading. As a storyteller, Lucky has a post-modern sensibility:
There. I have given you a story of the Moon Landing. A storyteller likes to please her audience. You are probably mammalian, enjoying tales of mammalian adventure. And I’ve enjoyed telling you this one. I’ve enjoyed sifting through the material at my disposal, shaping this, dispensing with that, inventing interior scenes and plausible dialogue.
But not I want to ter it to shreds. I want to dig my beak into it, hard, tearing at its fabric, creating nonsensical strips of words, parts of letters. (227)
Many of the Sorensen’s descriptions of landscape are beautiful, with a sensual appreciation of the natural world:
She watches the water suck back, back and then hears the flute-like sound, a roar, as the water comes crashing in again, sending a giant white fountain into the air. It drops and chases itself back down its lair in streaming white foam rivulets. The gurgling, sucking noises are thrilling. (253)
It’s hard to believe that The Lucky Galah is a debut. It’s an ambitious, complex novel full of varying points of view, voices, historical narration, a variety of themes, and all sorts of subtle references, including many literary links and allusions, but the writing is so assured and smooth that these complexities become rich undercurrents that seamlessly integrate into the story rather than digressions. Reading The Lucky Galah is a joyous experience.