Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2018

The Lucky Galah, by Tracy Sorensen

Among those of us of a certain age, ‘lucky’ is a loaded word when applied to a book title.   Since Donald Horne published The Lucky Country in 1964, taking Australians to task for their philistinism, provincialism and mediocrity, its ironic title has resonated with all those who yearn for a more imaginative, independent and outward-looking nation.  (Just tonight, the ABC filed a report on the woeful state of innovation in Australian business and manufacturing).  Rosa Cappiello riffed on Horne’s title in her novel Oh, Lucky Country! (see my review) and Donald Horne, frustrated by the wilful misreading of his title, wrote a follow-up called Death of the Lucky Country. 

Tracy Sorensen’s debut novel is set in 1969 in a remote WA coastal town that both conforms to and defies Horne’s criticisms.  It’s where a satellite dish is set up to capture signals from Apollo 11 and Texas, and you can’t get more outward-looking than space, but with one ill-fitting exception, (the outsider Harry Baumgarten), the characters and their preoccupations are distinctly philistine, provincial and mediocre, except for their talent at improvisation.  The novel could be a fictional exploration of Horne’s critique…except that it’s narrated by a galah.

I like experiments with narration but there are certain kinds of narrators that I dislike: dead children, dead bodies, and any character that whines.  So I didn’t have a predisposition to dislike a narrator that’s a galah.  It’s a dislike that grew on me as I read the book.   Ultimately it seemed a pointless device, its only merit being a not very convincing and sometimes irrelevant ability to capture the signals between the satellite dish, allowing the galah to receive insights from everyone in the town.  However, since the quirkiness of this narration may appeal to some readers, I shall set that aside and focus on the story.

(Except to query whether the title is meant to be ironic.  No galah in captivity is ‘lucky’.  The sections where this bird is confined to a cage too small to stretch its pitiful clipped wings are painful to read, but when it has the comparative freedom of Lizzie’s house,  this is presented as ‘happy ending’.  The bird is still denied a wild life.  And galahs live a very long time.)

Anyway…

The structure of the story builds up to the moon landing in 1969, but the focus of the story is really the people who live in the remote coastal (fictional) WA town of Port Badminton which tracks the astronauts with a satellite dish.  (There was actually a tracking station at Carnarvon and although only the foundations remain today, there’s a museum for tourists to learn about its unsung role in the Gemini and Apollo space missions.)  Central to the story is an ill-matched couple called Evan Johnson and his wife Linda.  Evan is obsessed with his work and loses his way once the landing has taken place, while Linda – who has always worked hard at being a ‘normal’ 1960s wife and mother – is frustrated by the limitations of small town life and yes, you guessed it, finds ways to liven things up.  Next door but one are the Kellys, a ramshackle Catholic family with too many children.  They conform to the stereotyping of Irish Catholicism with their loving though alcoholic home – where the Johnson children actually have more fun than they do in their privileged and fashionably tasteful own home.

It is the Kellys however, who have the galah in a cage for many long years, so that by the time it is accidentally liberated and healed by an elderly Aboriginal woman called Lizzie, it has lost all its natural behaviours.  Seriously, if you care about animal welfare, the story of Lucky the Galah is horrible to read.

Sorensen’s strength is her well-researched depiction of the era, but the detail wears thin after a while because not much actually happens to keep the narrative tension in play.  Events that might have enlivened the trajectory are foreshadowed early on, so that it’s more a matter of learning how (though not necessarily why) things happen.  It’s a pity because Sorensen writes well and this is a promising debut: what it needs IMO is some tight structural editing.

However, other reviewers loved it.  See Sam Still Reading; Magdalena Ball at The Compulsive Reader, Michelle McLaren at The Newtown Review of Books. and Theresa Smith at Theresa Smith Writes.  (There’s also an interview here).  There are others at The Australian and the ABR but you have to get through the paywall to see them.

Author: Tracy Sorensen
Title: The Lucky Galah
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2018
ISBN: 9781760552657
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.99

Available from Fishpond:The Lucky Galah


Responses

  1. I had a galah. Sorry! It used to walk around the little country (Mallee) town where we lived until eventually it was ‘adopted’ by someone else. I was in, passing through, Carnarvon last week. It still has big satellite dishes, not the same ones I guess. At 450 km to the next town, by dirt road probably in the 60s, I can imagine it felt very isolated indeed.

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    • Apparently that big satellite dish is an OTC telecommunications one, not the space program one. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnarvon,_Western_Australia) has a picture of its long, long jetty, did you see that at all?

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      • You don’t see the sea driving through so I haven’t seen the jetty. I was stuck there once, on the edge of town, for six days when the Gascoyne flooded its banks. It was close to Xmas and eventually they sent us Xmas pudding and wine by helicopter.

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        • Ah, there’s a flood in the story, based on historical truth, I see…

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  2. I am not surprised someone has written about the lack of vision in business. There is much in Australia that I find stagnating at times. I couldn’t read the parts about the animals. I get too upset. I have been known to buy birds in tiny cages and then rehome them in larger aviaries. I hate seeing these lovely, long lived creatures so confined. Thankfully it doesn’t occur as much as it used to.

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    • Yes, it’s like those people who farm animals for the live export market. How can they be so cruel? The entire world (except for the Japanese) has agreed that there is no humane way to kill a whale, and there is no humane way to export live sheep, only to have them then killed in an inhumane way. I am so pleased that at least one of our major parties is going to ban it.
      If I had my way there would be no caged birds either. Wild creatures should not be in cages.

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  3. I really enjoyed this book and correspondingly my review was positive. I see your point regarding the animal welfare. I interviewed Tracy (for Australian Women Writers Challenge blog) and she talked about a galah she had as a child kept in captivity and how thinking back on it almost broke her heart. I’m not a fan of birds in cages but we all know that birds bred in captivity can’t survive in the wild. I chose to see Lucky’s move from the Kelly’s to Lizzie as very lucky indeed. I can provide a link to the interview if you’d like but won’t presume and put it here automatically.

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  4. I didn’t buy this book when I was in Oz cos the idea of a bird narrator didn’t appeal (and this from the former editor of a bird magazine!) especially as I’d had such a hard time reading one of the Giller shortlisted novels (Yiddish for Pirates) last year, which was narrated by a parrot. 🙄

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    • I just don’t see what the narration adds to the story…

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  5. […] The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, see my review […]

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  6. […] The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, see my review […]

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  7. […] The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, see my review Lucky the Galah wryly narrates this story of a key moment in Australia’s past – when the Parkes […]

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