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