4.5 ?s The Lucky Galah is the first novel by Australian academic, journalist, film-maker and author, Tracy Sorensen. Lucky hadn’t been named until she was rescued from imminent death by Lizzie, who knew a lot about birds. And not long after that Lucky first received a transmission from the Dish, up there on the Red Range outside Port Badminton.
The Dish had been installed for transmissions during the forthcoming lunar landing, and years of preparation for this historic event were necessary. But it appeared to be receiving and recording not just from outer space. Lucky loves stories, and now she has one to tell; some of it gleaned from what she saw and heard from her cage near the Kelly’s outside toilet, at the back of their blue house in Clam Street, and some from data dumped by the Dish.
When Evan Johnson, his beautiful wife and sweet little daughter arrive in 1964 from chilly Melbourne, it’s like a summer holiday. Linda Johnson is enthusiastic about Evan’s new job at the Tracking Station and their relocation to Port Badminton, but that’s before the heat hits.
The daughter of a reffo and a commo, Linda spends energy just maintaining the façade of ‘normal’ (a wooden salad bowl with matching servers, café curtains, Tupperware, frilly tennis panties), and she’s popular with the other Tracker wives. But now: “…no fresh milk, no television, limited radio, nothing in the shops... no culture to speak of, the flies swarm over one’s face… the mosquitoes eat you alive…” she’s uncomfortable, unhappy and bored. Until, that is, entomologist and amateur ornithologist, Harry Baumgarten comes into town.
The narrative is split into two timeframes: the period between the Johnsons’ arrival in Port Badminton and Evan’s disappearance; and the present day. Overlooking Lucky’s dumps from the dish, the plot is easily believable and reaches a climax with a suitably delicious twist. The reader is aware from the beginning that Evan Johnson disappears into the sea at the Blowholes soon after the lunar landing; the how and why of it are gradually revealed.
Sorensen gives the reader a wonderful cast of characters, the likes of whom populate many a remote community. Quirks and flaws, but also caring and kindness are common among the townspeople. Certain personages are but thinly disguised, easily recognisable by their favourite phrases.
But Sorensen’s real expertise is in rendering the era: mentions of TV shows, food and drink, personalities, current affairs, children’s games, breakfast cereals, literature, movies and social attitudes, all these anchor the main tale firmly in the mid- to late-sixties. For readers of a certain vintage, this novel is a feast of nostalgia. It would make a wonderful movie or mini-series, especially in the hands of those who created the movie of Jasper Jones. An outstanding debut novel.