Carrie Tiffany is on a roll. Last month her second novel, Mateship with birds, won the inaugural Stella Prize, and this month it won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Many bloggers* have already read and reviewed it so, once again, I’m the last kid on the block, but I have finally got there.
Like her gorgeous first novel, Everyman’s rules for scientific living, Mateship with birds is set in rural Victoria in the past, this time, the early 1950s. Its central characters are the lonely, gentle dairy farmer, Harry, whose wife has left him, and his also lonely neighbour, Betty, who has brought her fatherless children to the country and who works in the local aged care home. The novel takes place over a year, a year that is paced by the life-cycle of a kookaburra family which Harry watches and documents in the spare righthand column of his old milk ledger. These notes, which are interspersed throughout the novel, are delightful and poetic, albeit brutal at times:
They work in pairs
against a fairy wren.
Dad buzzes the nest,
the wren throws herself on the ground
to draw him away.
She pluckily performs her decoy
- holding out her wing as if it is broken.
A small bird on the ground
is easy picking.
Club-Toe finishes her off.
They also provide commentary on the main story which is, as you’ve probably guessed, a love story. It is, however, no traditional romance. The boy and girl, Harry and Betty, are well past their youth and are cautious, given their previous experiences of love and relationships. They reminded me a little of Kate Grenville‘s rather dowdy protagonists in The idea of perfection. They care for each other in all sorts of practical ways: Betty cooks meals for Harry and tends his health, and Harry looks out for Betty and her children, fixing things when he can. A sexual tension underlies all their interactions – over many years – but it’s not openly expressed. (“When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next”). Harry gradually takes on the role of “father figure” for Michael. However, when Michael becomes interested in a girl and Harry decides to pass on some “father-son” knowledge (“an explanation of things – of things with girls? Of … details of the workings”), including some rather specific physical advice regarding women, Betty is not impressed.
It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it, but there’s something about Tiffany’s writing that makes it feel fresh, original. Part of it stems from her particular background as a scientist and agricultural journalist. Again, like her first novel, she grounds the story in her knowledge of farming life, but not in so much detail as to be boring. Rather, her descriptions give the novel its underlying rhythm – the landscape and the creatures inhabiting it (the kookaburras, owls, magpies, and so on); the milking; the driving into town; the way country neighbours help each other out; the sense of life going on regardless of the little dramas, the kindnesses and the cruelties, that occur. The writing is evocative but has a resigned and rather laconic tone that fits the rural setting.
Although a short book – a novella, really – it’s richly textured. There’s the main narrative drive which flips between Harry and Betty and includes flashbacks to their past, occasional dialogue, gorgeous descriptions (“The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin”), and lists of plants, animals, medications, and so on. Interspersed with this main narrative are Harry’s kookaburra log, Betty’s notebook, Little Hazel’s nature diary, and Harry’s letters to Michael. And all this is layered with imagery involving mating, mateship, birds and humans. You can imagine the possibilities that Tiffany teases out from these. It’s all carefully constructed but doesn’t feel forced. It just flows.
In other words, this is a clever book, but not inaccessibly so. It’s generous, not judgemental. It’s also pretty earthy, with regular allusions to and descriptions of sex. If I have any criticism, it’s in the persistent references to sexuality. At times, I wanted to say, “ok, I get it, sex - in its beauty, carnality, and sometimes cruelty and brutality – is integral to life” but I kept on reading because … of the writing. I love Tiffany’s writing. I mean, how can you not like writing like this description in which Harry compares Betty to Michael’s girlfriend Dora:
Not like Betty. His Betty is heavier, more complicated. Betty meanders within herself; she’s full of quiet pockets. The girl Dora might be water, but his Betty is oil. You can’t take oil lightly. It seeps into your skin. It marks you.
I also kept reading because I wanted to know what it was all about. Why was Tiffany writing this particular story, I kept thinking. For some reviewers (see the links at the end), it is primarily about family, for others it is about the relationship between men and women, but for Tiffany it’s about desire. I can see that it is about all these things, but here’s the thing, the book starts with the description of four attacks by birds on humans followed by a description of cockatoos damaging crops. This, together with the sexual imagery, the frequent references to animal behaviour and to humans’ relationships with animals, suggests to me another theme to do with the nature of life, with the nature of our relationships with animals, and with how we accommodate the animal versus the human within ourselves. I’ll give the final word to the birds:
Mum, Dad, Club-Toe
break off their
They lose themselves in the doing.
I struggle to tell them apart.
there is no question
they would die for the family
- that violence is a family act.
This book packs a punch!
Mateship with birds
Sydney: Picador, 2012
I had something else planned for today’s Monday musings, but it can wait, because this afternoon a member of my Jane Austen group brought something rather interesting to my attention. It’s the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.
Here is how it describes itself:
Emotions shape individual, community and national identities. The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions uses Historical Knowledge from Europe, 1100-1800, to understand the long history of emotional behaviours.
How fascinating. It’s one of those joint ARC projects involving a number of universities: the University of Adelaide, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney, and the University of Western Australia. Given the cutbacks to tertiary studies in the humanities over recent years, I’m thrilled to see something like this being supported. The Centre was established in January 2011.
They divide their research areas into four programs: Meanings, Change, Performance and Shaping the modern. There’s a lot going on, but under Shaping the Modern I found an interesting current project being undertaken by Dr Katrina O’Loughlin, titled ‘A certain correspondence’: intellectual sociability and emotional community in the eighteenth century. She’s interested in the “global early modern world” – seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe – and the explosion in trade and travel that led not only to movement of people and objects, but to “a lively exchange of ideas”. Her specific research interest is the “affective dimensions” of the “intellectual bonds” that were forged as people shared ideas – in salons, theatres, coffeehouses, pleasure gardens and so on.
I guess you know what this made me think of: how our current global communication explosion is resulting in a similar sharing of ideas – virtually – and how this too is having an affective dimension, both positive and negative. From my forays into online communities – starting with internet bookgroups operating via listservs in the mid to late 1990s – I have been thrilled by the sharing of ideas that I’ve been involved in but, just as importantly, also by the friendships that have developed as a result. I have also, as have any of us who’ve spent a lot of time online, experienced or witnessed a range of other, more negative, emotional behaviours. These emotional behaviours and patterns can clearly impact us as individuals, but the interesting thing is whether or how they impact society (or community) as a whole. For example, has (or will) our global sharing lead to improved understanding of “other” and therefore greater peace? Hmm … Anyhow, I’d love to see what conclusions O’Loughlin reaches, and how applicable they might be to the 21st century.
I suppose this post has a tenuous link to Australian literature but, looking at it broadly, the research being undertaken will add to the body of Australian academic literature, and I reckon that’s a good enough reason for writing about it in my Monday Musings series. And anyhow, isn’t emotion at the bottom of everything we read?
You can Like the Centre on Facebook to be kept informed about activities/events/research that are historically emotional or, is that, emotionally historical!
For the past five years my Jane Austen group has been reading Jane Austen’s letters in a rather higgledy piggdledy manner*. We have nearly finished now. We have just done her first letters, and next year we will conclude, logically at last, on her final letters. What a fascinating time we’ve been having.
Jane Austen’s first published letter was written in January 1796, when she was just 20, and it is in this first letter that she mentions Tom Lefroy, the young man, also just 20, with whom she had a romantic attachment. Lefroy later became the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. When asked many years after her death about his relationship with Austen, he admitted to a “boyish love”. Here is our first mention, in Letter 1:
… I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy [Tom's aunt and a friend of the Austens] a few days ago.
In Letter 2, a few days later, she mentions a party to be held at the Lefroy home the next night:
I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.
Is she expecting a proposal from Tom? The “great white Coat” is a tongue-in-cheek (and, perhaps, also self-preserving) reference to her comment in the previous letter about his morning coat being “a great deal too light”. Later in the letter, which she started on Thursday and finished on Friday, comes:
Friday. — At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.
The only other reference to Tom Lefroy occurs well over a year later in November 1798, Letter 11:
Mrs. Lefroy did come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy’s arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries [my stress]; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.
It’s all very tantalising – but at the very least it’s pretty clear that Jane Austen learnt something about love and loss from this experience. A brief description of the “affair” can be read here on the JASA website.
Austen, though, was not one to wallow. I loved her comment in a later letter (January 1799) that:
I had a very pleasant evening, however, though you will probably find out that there was no particular reason for it; but I do not think it worth while to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it. (Letter 18)
A positive philosophy that she does seem to have lived by, if her letters are to be believed.
These letters, like those I’ve written about previously, provide much information about her life and times – about the dangers of childbirth, health and medical treatment, men’s careers, farming, housekeeping and fashion – often delivered in Austen’s witty, often also acerbic tongue. As before, I’ll share just a few here …
Austen talks a lot about clothing in the letters, so much so that some readers find it boring. However, her fashion talk tells us more than simply what she and Cassandra are wearing. For example, we learn about the craze for Marmalouc caps, which reminds us of the Napoleonic Wars as the caps were inspired by Egyptian turbans after the Battle of the Nile in August 1798. We learn about Austen’s tight financial situation. Caps and gowns were re-trimmed to suit another Ball or season, items are shared (the Marmalouc cap itself was borrowed from sister-in-law Mary Austen). Best of all, though, we get her wit such as her description of the rage for wearing flowers and fruits (Letter 21) in Bath. In Letter 22, she responds to Cassandra’s request for some Bath fashion, but she’s having trouble deciding:
I cannot decide on the fruit until I hear from you again. – Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. – What do you think on that subject?
Childbirth, Health and Medical Treatments
I could write a whole post just on her discussion of health-related matters. We hear of women dying in childbirth, of people taking or drinking the Waters in Bath for assorted health concerns, of her mother’s using laudanum for pain, of the use of electricity for pain relief … Again, though, there’s often a sting in the tail. It’s generally believed that Jane had a tricky relationship with her mother who was somewhat of a hypochondriac. In several of these early letters she reports on her mother’s health. Here is one (Letter 18):
She is tolerably well – better on the whole than she was some weeks ago. She would tell you herself that she has a very dreadful cold in her head at present; but I have not very much compassion for colds in the head without fever or sore throat.
In other letters, though, she does show more tenderness!
Writing and novels
Her own writing is rarely mentioned in these early letters, but the first version of Pride and prejudice, then titled First impressions, is referred to a couple of times. Here is a tongue-in-cheek reference to her friend and future sister-in-law Martha Lloyd reading it:
I would not let Martha read “First Impressions” again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it.
But, my favourite comment on writing in this group of letters relates to her assessment of the novel, Fitz-Albini, that she and her father were reading (Letter 12):
We have got “Fitz-Albini;” my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated.
The novel was apparently highly autobiographical and in it, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine (1837), Egerton “depicted with the utmost freedom the foibles not only of his neighbours and acquaintances, but even [my stress] those of his own family and relations”. What I most like about Austen’s comment though is the insight it gives into her views on what makes a good novel. It shouldn’t be so transparently the author’s opinions; it should have a clear storyline; and the characters should have some substance. Ah Jane, she knew how to write …
I don’t know about you but I find blogging a challenge when I’m travelling, as I have been for much of May. I love my iPad for staying in touch, but I don’t find it easy to write blog posts on it – either via the WordPress app or the browser. And, our old PC laptop that we share for travelling just isn’t the same as my MacBook Pro. Consequently, I decided to delay posting on Michael Sala’s win, announced yesterday, until I got back today.
It’s an exciting win – of course, what win isn’t! – and means that Sala is now in the running for the overall Commonwealth Book Prize which will be announced on 31 May. I am particularly thrilled because it was published by a small, not yet well-known publisher, Affirm Press, which has published some lovely books over the last couple of years.
I reviewed Sala’s novel last year. It’s autobiographical, and has clearly been a challenge for him and his family*. I closed my review with:
In the very last pages of the book, Michael’s mother says that “words and stories can be dangerous” (echoing Francesca Rendle-Short’s “to think, to write, is dangerous”). They can indeed, but sometimes that danger can have positive outcomes. I hope that, for Sala, the dangers of putting his story, his truths, on the page will be restorative. There’s no guarantee though that such bravery will have its just rewards … in life or in fiction.
It’s exciting for Sala that his bravery has brought him recognition. He has also been shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams New Writing Award in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Prize. I wish him well in both awards – and congratulate him and Affirm Press on their achievements to date.
* As comments from his family on my original post show.
If today weren’t Monday, this would probably be a literary road post but it is Monday which means of course that it’s a Monday Musings instead! See how flexible I am?
I know I talk a lot here about the bush and the outback but they are topics that keep cropping up in my reading and thinking. They cropped up again yesterday during a performance we attended at the Ballarat Heritage Festival. It was Bernard Caleo of the Museum of Melbourne reciting Banjo Paterson‘s “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle” and “The Man from Ironbark“. He performed them beautifully, but even better he provided some background to Paterson and his times. He spoke of the rivalry between Paterson and Henry Lawson. They were, he said, friends but they saw the bush in opposing ways: Lawson thought Paterson was too “romantic” while Paterson thought Lawson was all “doom and gloom”.
Caleo didn’t buy into the argument. That wasn’t, after all, his reason for being at the festival, but he did say that through publishing their poems and stories in The Bulletin they debated and defined our understanding of the city and the bush or outback. And he was right. Whether we read Paterson’s comedy or Lawson’s gloom or, even, Barbara Baynton‘s gothic, what we get is not only a sense of a divide between the city and the outback, but a rather schizophrenic view of the bush and/or outback. However, I don’t think these opposing views are irreconcilable: Paterson’s view of bushmen as heroic, free, and unsophisticated, and Lawson’s recognition of the harshness of outback life and the despairing resilience of the people are mutually exclusive. The way I see it, Lawson’s drover’s wife is heroic and Paterson’s Clancy works hard for his living. It’s more a matter of perspective than of there being a single truth … Don’t you think?
And yet, it’s not quite that simple either, because there is the issue of intention, or, at least, of impact. Paterson’s main goal seems to have been for city people to respect not ridicule bush people whereas Lawson, with his socialist leanings, may very well have hoped his writings would lead to practical improvements in the lot of the people he wrote about. On the other hand, maybe both just wanted to make a buck! Regardless, these two views of bush people are still relevant today …. That’s what interests me the most when I read, or hear, their writing, the way those views persist. I’m sure to write more on’t.
I recently reviewed Andrew Croome’s Midnight empire which is mostly set in and around Las Vegas, an area I have travelled through several times. Here is Croome’s description of his protagonist Daniel being introduced to the region:
Mythic horizons. They drove into the liquid road-shimmer of the desert, past the Joshua trees and the creosote bushes that bordered the I95.
It was midday, the sun unforgiving. They drove at seventy miles an hour but it seemed slower, the effects of the desert; their perceptions of depth made strange, as if light itself had shortened. It was terrain that felt planetary, the dry sink of an enormous Martian basin, a forever geology of heat and shale.
There is something otherworldly about deserts – any deserts – and the landscape around Las Vegas is typical desert in that sense. It’s vast, multi-hued, vegetated by unusual plants, and both forbidding and mesmerising in that way that is unique to deserts.
Deserts are popular places for secret military activity. Think atomic testing at White Sands in New Mexico and Maralinga in Australia. So too, Creech Airforce Base in Nevada, which is the setting for Midnight empire and which has a long military history from its early involvement in nuclear testing and to drone warfare today.
Croome’s description of the landscape Daniel drives through is evocative, although I do get a bit tripped up on the ”terrain that felt planetary”. Isn’t the earth a planet? What exactly does “planetary” mean? I’m probably being a bit picky, though, because, overall the two paragraphs do herald the rather surreal world – physical and mental – that Daniel becomes embroiled in. And anyhow, I couldn’t resist sharing with you his reference to Joshua Trees (pictured in the photo above) because they are worth sharing …
The Gundagai area was home to the Wiradjuri people, and was settled by white people in the late 1820s. It was officially gazetted in 1840 despite repeated warnings by the Wiradjuri about the risk of large floods to this part of the Murrumbidgee River floodplain.
According to the Poet’s Recall Motel, Gundagai’s first streets were named for poets: Shakespeare Tce, Milton St, Pope St, Johnson St, Maturin St, Landon St., Hemans St, Sheridan St, Otway St, Byron St, Homer St, Virgil St, and Ovid St. However, believe it or not, the Wiradjuri knew their country and in 1852 a huge flood destroyed the town. Over one third of the 250 inhabitants and a number of travellers died, and 71 buildings were destroyed. The old mill is the only building still standing from the original town. As for the poets, when the town was rebuilt, on higher ground, the poet street names, according to the Motel’s notes, were not reused. However, looking at a modern street map of Gundagai, I did spy Sheridan, Homer, Byron Streets, plus a reference to Ovid Lane and the other poets. Presumably these have been returned to the town in more recent times.
Anyhow, this is where the Poet’s Recall Motel comes in. The owner – I’m not sure when – decided to revive Gundagai’s poetic history. Each motel room is named for a poet – the original 13 and then some. I was rather delighted to find that our room was Banjo Paterson, and the two rooms next to us were Henry Lawson and Breaker Morant. Fine room-mates for Whispering Gums! In addition, the historic bar in the motel’s restaurant is decorated with painted portraits – on local slate – of the original 13 poets.
Once again I’ve learnt that country towns can be surprising places … I don’t imagine I would ever have heard of Felicia Hemans, who was published in the early nineteenth century by John Murray, Jane Austen’s publisher, if I hadn’t stayed at the Poet’s Recall Motel.