Gates, Chelinay. Lucky-Child The Secret. Tellwell Talent, 2019. RRP: $34.95, 356pp, ISBN: 9780228821144.
Chelinay Gates’s Lucky-Child The Secret is a fascinating work, both optimistic and disturbing. To a non-Indigenous city slicker like me, it’s an eye-opening piece of storytelling—veering from the back streets of modern-day Broome to the vast beauty of the Great Sandy Desert; part grittily and confrontingly contemporary, part magnificently mythical.
Set loosely in the 1970s, when Gates was a similar age as the sixteen-year-old reluctant heroine Lucy Lucky-Child, the novel relates the coming to womanhood and spiritual empowerment of Lucy under the guidance of her great-grandmother (her Jalbri), her grandmother (Mimi) and a band of fearless women on Country, in the Great Sandy Desert. On Country, they thrive using practices passed down over eons, and stand up to powerful, often fearsome spiritual beings like Bulari (the Mother Goddess), the Bugura (dangerous spirit men from the hills) or the serpentine Kulpan Karrangu. Back in Broome these same women are mocked and brutalised by those that brandish power. There are echoes of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria in the matter-of-fact mingling of urban struggle and systemic racism with powerful spiritual forces drawn from Indigenous belief.
Gates, whose father was an Indigenous trailblazer and whose mother descended from Kurdish cameleers, identifies with the Karajarri people from Bidyadanga in the Kimberley south of Broome, though connections in her lineage, she says, have all been broken. Her twin sister she has ‘missed since the day [they] were taken from [their] mother’s breast…’ (IX) She remembers standing in Barrack Street in the city with her mother in 1968 beneath a sign that read ‘No dogs, no Aboriginals’. Gates says ‘I wanted to do justice to the stories of my forebears who didn’t have a voice,’ adding, ‘I wrote what I felt I must write—sometimes against my will. There were a lot of tears.’ Ultimately, though, she wants readers to ‘love the characters in her book and forget they’re Indigenous.’ The book is for: ‘travellers on the road of life; anyone with secrets, who feels their life is not straight up and down.’
Lucy’s story is told in the first person in a rough-cut voice, frequently using language one wouldn’t hear in church. The voice is an unlikely but effective bridge between the urban contemporary and the spiritual or fantastical.
My hands were steady now. With Manu’s feather pressed hard against my chest, I pointed the bone.
Watching him take punishment for all his horrific deeds was an ugly sight. Squealing like a rat caught in a trap, he scuttled off into the darkness, his wretched life leaking out of him with each step.
As his putrid energy dissolved before me, the night sky bent down to kiss the warm, blackened earth. My sister and I clung to each other, sobbing out the word ‘Sorry’. We cried ourselves out.
It struck me how often us mob are sorry. Jalbri had told us about revenge killing, and now Waranmanha and I had pointed the bone, I was scared shitless. What would our punishment be? How could we stop this revenge bullshit? (238)
A feature of the book are the many words and phrases of Indigenous language—mainly Wajarri and Mangala—interspersed throughout, adding another trail of understanding for the outsider looking in on traditional Indigenous ways. Old Jalbri tells Lucy, ‘A gurrgurdu (mopoke owl) hooted. Lookin’ up, the sky had cleared and my yagu’s star shot across the sky […] Husband lit a fire and sang down our mitily manga (baby girl) from the night sky into my yirrar (womb).’ (105) Terms are listed in a glossary, with language groups noted.
Gates refers to the book’s spiritual stories as prophecies. All of the spiritual figures and prophecies in the novel are based on Indigenous lore, she says, and she received permissions from the Bidyadanga people to draw from them. ‘For some, the novel will be stories about prophecies,’ she says, ‘while for many Indigenous people these will be prophecies that will one day come true; stories to be feared. The book is a connection to Indigenous prophecies about Australia that very few people know about.’ They certainly make for a cracking good yarn, creating a marvellous context for Lucy’s brave journey; her struggle to Thubarnimanha or ‘straighten up’; to accept her spiritual lineage and become fit to receive her people’s Lore. (322) The story is an odyssey, a succession of triumphs and anguish, set against a majestic physical backdrop. ‘Gan.gara (high above) hung a fine sliver of milara (moon) and a thousand dazzling bundarra (stars). All the creatures […] were silent as Mother Nature changed her gown for nyubarr (sleep).’ (79)
Gates is best known as an artist and doctor of Chinese medicine, and Lucky-Child The Secret is her first novel. The cover art and evocative images which head each chapter are hers. Gates is working on a sequel titled ‘The Sacred’ exploring restoring the sacred in our lives.
Jen Banyard is the author of four novels for young readers (published by Fremantle Press) and numerous stories. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia.