Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 224 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, Mateship with Birds, has been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Stella Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. I chose to read it on the strength of her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, which was published in 2005.
Mateship with Birds is set in rural Australia in the 1950s. It’s a character-driven novel about two lonely people — Harry, a dairy farmer whose wife ran off with another man, and Betty, a single mother raising two children, Michael and Little Hazel — who live next door to each other. The over-riding question is this: when will the two of them get their acts together and transform their friendship into something rather more, well — how shall we say this — sexual?
This rather thin plot line is interspersed with Harry’s observations of a raucous family of kookaburras, which live on his farm. In these iconic birds, he sees the kind of love and interaction he, too, would like to experience — and it is this theme which forms the hub of the novel: what is it that makes a family?
But the novel also centres on sex — to an almost obsessive degree. Mues, a local farmer, exposes himself to Little Hazel; Betty masturbates after work; a patient in the local nursing home (where Betty is employed as an aged-care nurse) plays with his “limp cock” — and this is all by page 45 of my edition. To take it up a level, Harry decides to teach young Michael the finer points of sex education, some of which he writes in letter form to save the embarrassment of conversation. These outpourings are very frank and occasionally very funny.
One of the things I most liked about the book is the delicious descriptions of people, places, nature and birdlife. And having grown up in dairy farming country — albeit much further south than the area of Australia depicted here — I especially loved the way Tiffany conveyed what it is like to live and work on a diary farm. This is not a bucolic view, but completely authentic and real, right down to every last unpleasant detail.
Dairy pastures are difficult to establish in gullies where there is seepage and drainage. They drift like continents; their hides are maps of uncharted countries. Keep the herd on dry ground through the winter. Sunlight shines ginger through their ears. Plant shelterbelts to reduce wind speed. Elastic ropes of snot hang from their nostrils; their hocks are stuck with shit.
The characters are also wonderfully drawn: Betty is desperately lonely and sad, watching herself and her body slide into perceived decay; Harry is an old romantic and rather kind and tender; Mues is appropriately creepy; and the children are inquisitive and naive in the way that only children of that era (before TV, the internet and mobile phones) could be.
Tiffany’s prose style is always interesting. She writes in a minimalist easy-to-understand way (the product of being a rural reporter, no doubt), but finds creative ways to play with the language — for example, “his tongue tasted curdled in his mouth”; a white dress has a “thick, expensive lustre, like icing on a fancy cake”; and two huntsman spiders “prowl Harry’s bedroom ceiling” in “opposing corners like boxers waiting on the bell”.
Harry’s bird watching notes written in an old milk ledger also read like poetry and are typeset in stanzas to convey that impression even more so.
Too much sex
But while there is much to admire about Mateship with Birds, I found that the constant sexual references, allusions and metaphors got in the way of the story. They clogged up the narrative like tipper trucks on suburban streets — a hulking presence that simply could not be avoided. And once you noticed them, they were everywhere.
If I was to sum up the novel in one word, it would be this: quirky.