By Carrie TiffanyFiction Picador
Mateship with Birds
‘Art starts with noticing things,’ says Carrie Tiffany. Her second novel, Mateship with Birds, is studded with observational gems and inspirations gathered from found objects – from its title (taken from a 1922 bird-watching book) to observations of a kookaburra family (seen from her Mitcham backyard).
Tiffany, who moved to Perth from Yorkshire as a child, and has worked as a park ranger, has a fierce affinity with the Australian rural landscape and its people. Her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, was set in Victoria’s wheat country in the 1930s. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Orange Prize, and longlisted for the Man Booker.
Mateship with Birds follows two families living on adjacent properties, in a 1950s Victorian border town. Dairy farmer Harry and his next-door neighbour Betty, a single mother with two children, quietly long for each other, while maintaining a warm friendship. For the children, particularly older boy Michael, Harry is the closest thing to a father they’ve ever known. As Michael enters adolescence, Harry attempts to teach him what he wishes he’d known about sex at his age, first through the metaphors of his beloved cows and then through frank written correspondence.
This is a warm, funny, exquisite little novel, where sex is as natural, earthy and intrinsic to life as is reflected on the farm and in the bush.
Mateship with Birds is an unusual and intriguing meditation on defining influence of our fundamental biological drives. It is a novel about sex, but it is also a novel about love. Written with an elegant simplicity of style, it teases out its themes in a series of adroit juxtapositions, in which the peculiar mating rituals of humans and animals are seen as different manifestations of the same natural process. Its small-town setting is ripe with evocative naturalistic imagery that Carrie Tiffany deploys to great effect. A charming novel with a spry sense of humour, Mateship with Birds is notable for the way its unsentimental, objective gaze comes to express a deep underlying sympathy for the desires of her unglamorous and ingenuous characters, Harry and Betty.
Mateship with Birds is a clever title for this book. While’ bird’ can mean both the winged variety and in slang, a sexually attractive woman, ’mateship’ draws on dual meanings too: mating (finding a mate, courtship rituals and mating for life) and also the Australian notion of mateship, meaning a special kind of friendship (laconic, but loyal: an indivisible, enduring bond between equals). In an Australian bush town in the 1950s, the wooing of a woman is more complex than the instinctive courtship of birds, but if it succeeds, the down-to-earth relationship that emerges is solid and strong, a mateship for life. But how best can a lonely man achieve it? A slow, careful campaign that shows what a great father he’d be? Or give in to instinct and be a lover, as the birds do?
Harry is a dairy farmer and Betty is an aged-care nurse who’s escaped to the country with her two fatherless children, Michael and Little Hazel. She is fiercely independent, but a neighbourly relationship has developed. She binds up Harry’s occasional cuts and bruises and gets him through a kidney attack; he lends a hand around the house every now and again. But there’s reserve between them, with feelings unexpressed and much unsaid.
After a few years they have the impression that Harry is always there, but in fact he is only ever there in small snatches – a meal, the delivery of a particular item, collecting Michael to help with the cows. The operations of the family are attractive to him, but also unsettling. When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next.
Harry’s passion is bird-watching, and through a journal in verse, we learn about the activities of a family of kookaburras throughout the year: Mum, Dad, Club-Toe and Tiny. Harry’s ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, written in an old milk ledger to share with Michael, records the cycle of life: birth, death, and wooing. The birds have family squabbles, but they unite against an intruder. They share the work of hunting and caring for the young. Harry attributes emotion to them too: there is love and loyalty; jealousy and sulking; hesitation and fear of the unknown.
The parallels with the human misfits hesitating to form a family are cunningly woven into the story, and there are some lovely images in these verse passages:
It seems plausible to consider
That birds were the architects for trees.
or a fork,
for every nesting cradle; a branch for every grip.
And they designed a structure
to which insects are naturally attracted
like women to the shops.
One of my favourite moments in Harry’s slow adoption of Betty’s kids is his act of kindness for Little Hazel. There’s a school holiday camp to see the snow at Mt Baw Baw, and the girl has never seen the snow. But it’s accepted that she can’t go. Tiffany doesn’t labour the point but the condition of the house shows that there is no spare money for school trips. When it’s ‘nippy’ in the winter in the sleep-out – ‘a closed-in section of the verandah with timber boards halfway up the walls and louvred aluminium windows above them’ – Little Hazel ‘buries her head under the blankets to get to sleep and often wakes in the morning with an earache from the draught’. But Harry, unasked, waits till Little Hazel is at school and then, using the legendary Aussie ingenuity for adapting things and ‘making do’, makes a wonderland of snow in Little Hazel’s bedroom using kapok from a pillow. (A pillow that he says is just an old one. But Betty buys him a replacement one at the co-op anyway. She knows.)
So things are looking good. But oh dear, Harry, whose own experiences of learning about women and wooing began badly with a vague and confusing sex education lesson from the vicar and ended with a failed marriage, thinks it might be a good idea to teach Michael about the ‘birds and the bees’. To say that his efforts are clumsy is an understatement, and Betty is not best pleased when she finds out about it!
You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if they sort it out.
Lisa Hill’s blog ANZ LitLovers won the 2012 Best Australian Blogs competition (run by Sydney Writers Centre) in the Words category. Lisa is a school librarian who describes the library as her ‘natural habitat’.
This review was first published on ANZ LitLovers.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist