The Galah’s hidden underbelly

The Lucky Galah
By Tracy Sorensen
Sydney, 2018
279 pages, $29.99

The Lucky Galah is the first novel from Tracy Sorensen, tutor in media at Charles Sturt University, documentary maker and former Green Left Weekly journalist.

The novel is largely told from the perspective of a galah named Lucky. From her cage or perched on her owner’s shoulder, Lucky observes and narrates life with a degree of omniscience, yet lives life caged or restricted by clipped wings.

The setting is the town of Port Badminton — a fictionalised version of Carnarvon in north-west Western Australia where Sorenson grew up – in the period of the 1960s and beyond.

Most of the central characters belong to the Kelly and the Johnson families. The Kelly family have a generational history in Port Badminton and are Lucky’s initial owners. The Johnson’s are newly arrived in the town, having moved from Melbourne.

Evan Johnson has a new job at Port Badminton’s recently-constructed tracking station. The tracking station is to play a role in the 1969 moon landing — beaming pictures of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, as did the Carnarvon tracking station on which it is based.

Some lesser characters include town mayor Thomas “Crowbar” Wilson (with a name and reputation not unlike a former Carnarvon mayor) and Kimberly Lamb, a red-headed fish and chip shop owner cum politician from Queensland.

The novel reflects the texture of life in similar Australian setting during that period. Having grown up in suburban Australia during some of the same period, I can say much of it also feels familiar to that experience.

A pivotal reference point in the novel is Donald Horne’s 1964 book The Lucky Country, which accounted Australia’s path to becoming a relatively powerful and prosperous country.

The phrase the “lucky country”, shorn of the cynicism with which Horne used it, has come to reflect a popular self-image of Australia as a successful and peaceful nation. It is tied to clichéd Australiana images of sandy beaches, sun-drenched wheat fields and affluent (white) families.

The Lucky Galah reflects on a similar time and place as Horne’s book. However, unlike the popular image of the time, life in Port Badminton has an underbelly of unspoken issues that increasingly seep into the novel’s picture of white, small town Australian life — racism, sexism, homophobia, trade unionism, politics.

The narrative, though, isn’t centred around this underbelly. Instead these issues arise, sometimes in relatively fleeting moments, sometimes through the back stories of the characters.

For instance, one character’s mother arrived in Port Badminton via the lock hospitals. These were “hospitals” that were located on islands off the coast of Carnarvon in the early part of last century where Aboriginal people with venereal disease were imprisoned and even experimented on with failed vaccines containing arsenic.

However, the novel isn’t directly about these things. Rather, the characters mostly carry on regular, familiar lives. These unspoken issues and events lie in the background, occasionally intersecting with their lives, influencing their thoughts, memories and motivations.