Australia, Author, Book review, Carrie Tiffany, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Mateship with Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship-with-birds

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.

Rural Australia

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.

Vividly descriptive

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.

To see what others think of this book, do check out Naomi’s review on The Writes of Woman, Tony’s on Tony’s Reading List and Lisa’s on ANZ LitLovers.

Australia, Author, Book review, David Malouf, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Fly Away Peter’ by David Malouf

Fly-away-peter

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 142 pages; 1999.

David Malouf is a critically acclaimed and prize-winning novelist and poet from Australia. Fly Away Peter, his third novel, netted him The Age Book of the Year in 1982 and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1983.

A Great War novel

It is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.

When Fly Away Peter opens it is 1914. Jim Saddler, a 20-year-old man from southern Queensland, devotes his time to watching birds in the estuary and swampland near the home he shares with the father he does not like very much.

One day he meets the owner of the land, Ashley Crowther, a rich farmer not much older than himself, who employees Jim to record the coming and going of the birds — both native and migratory species — as part of his plan to create a sanctuary.

A little later Jim befriends an older English woman called Imogen Harcourt, whom he sees in the “sanctuary” taking bird photographs which she sends to a London magazine. These photographs also accompany the long list of birds that Jim transcribes into a special book using his “best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down”.

Trio of characters

This trio of characters come from vastly different backgrounds — Miss Harcourt is an English immigrant who lives alone, Australian-born Ashley was educated in England’s finest schools, Jim has never left Queensland — and yet they are united by their mutual love of birds and the natural world.

When he talked to Miss Harcourt, as when he talked to Ashley Crowther, they spoke only of ‘the birds’.

But their idyllic existence comes to an end when war erupts in Europe and both men decide to sign up — Jim goes to Salisbury, England, to be trained; Ashley is an officer in a different division. It is here, on the battlefields of the Western Front, that Malouf’s extraordinary novel really comes into its own.

The mud and the trenches

His gut-wrenching descriptions of the mud and the trenches and the fear of going over the top are eloquent and moving, as is his depiction of the friendships, and occasional personal hostilities, formed on the front line.

There is one particularly god-awful scene in which Jim loses his best friend in the platoon, a larrikin called Clancy, that is more horrifying and bone-chilling than anything I’ve ever read about the Great War.

But the great strength of Fly Away Peter is the way in which Malouf not only describes how war is a machine, spitting out more and more young men who will die horrible deaths far from home, but also the way in which he contrasts the fighting in the trenches while the residents of Armentières are getting on with their day-to-day lives:

Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs. They were in a field and very nearly at home. You were in the trench system that lead to the war.

Explores Australian myths

It’s easy to see why the novel is a set text in many Australian schools. It explores the myth of the Australian soldier and the ANZAC spirit, and contrasts the horror of war with the beauty — and peace — of the natural world. It shows how an appreciation and respect for nature is a great leveller, crossing the boundaries of race, class and experience. And the text is rich with symbols, not least the migratory birds which represent Jim’s “flight” to the other side of the world.

But it is the poignancy of the ending, in which Miss Harcourt stands on the beach and reflects that life continues to move on — “Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held” — that elevates this novel from excellent to exceptional.

I haven’t felt so devastated by a First World War novel since I read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And going by how much I loved and adored those novels, I don’t make this statement lightly…

Africa, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Pan Books, Publisher, Sally Hinchcliffe, Setting

‘Out of a Clear Sky’ by Sally Hinchcliffe

OutofaClearSky

Fiction – paperback; Pan Books; 295 pages; 2008. 

Sally Hinchcliffe’s debut novel Out of a Clear Sky has already drawn comparisons to Barbara Vine, so I can’t claim to be original by stating the same. Yet the quiet build-up of tension and the psychological drama that plays out is hugely reminiscent of Ms Vine’s best work. It also has shades of Nicci French, mainly in its depiction of a single young woman on the run from a disturbed man.

And yet there’s something about Out of a Clear Sky that is wholly original.

The story is set in the world of bird-watching (or “twitching” as it is colloquially known) with each chapter headed by the name of a bird species — kingfisher, firecrest, wren — espousing on the theme. This continues with lovely descriptions of wild birds and the places in which they inhabit, giving the story a languid kind of beauty, almost a hymn to the natural world.

But belying this sense of calm is a tension that builds and builds, as the narrator Manda comes to terms with the realisation that a fellow birdwatcher, the mysterious and slightly spooky David, is observing her in much the same way as Manda observes the birds — closely and with much patience. Having just broken up with Gareth, her long-term boyfriend, Manda is already feeling pretty fragile, not helped by the lack of support shown by her small circle of friends who have seemingly abandoned her.

As the narrative progresses, and Manda shuts herself away by going on more solo birdwatching trips, we get glimpses of her troubled childhood in Africa and the inexplicable death of her mother. These flashbacks are seamlessly woven into the main storyline, so the reader is almost unaware of the subtle shifting backwards and forwards in time. But what you do begin to appreciate is that Manda has always been a victim and that history seems to be repeating itself. Will she find the energy and the will to keep on fighting, or will she succumb to a loner’s morbid fascination?

Despite a slightly weak circular plot (I guessed the major twist at the end long before I reached it), Out of a Clear Sky is a quietly thrilling read, and I’ll look forward to reading more by this talented writer in the future.