I’m going to begin writing about books from the Sixties very soon – but before I do that, I need to take care of one very important piece of unfinished business. One final indulgence, before I get on with things…
As I mentioned at the end of this post, Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds was one of my favourite literary discoveries last year. Tiffany’s debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is sitting on my shelf, unread and so very tempting, but I’m hesitant to pick it up just yet. Anyone who loves reading will surely understand my anxiety: when you discover a new author you love, it’s important to balance the compulsion to devour everything they’ve ever written with the crushing feeling of desolation once you’ve read all there is to read.
However, I have a feeling that the temptation just might get the better of me sooner than I think…
Mateship with Birds
Carrie Tiffany // Published in 2012
Next door, Harry, a lonely dairy farmer and avid birdwatcher uses his binoculars to observe a family of kookaburras living in the gumtree behind his dairy. Sometimes, he shyly turns his binoculars towards Betty’s place – just to check everything is as it should be. Or at least that’s what he tells himself.
It’s obvious from the moment we meet them both that there’s an awkward attraction at work between Harry and Betty, neither seeming to know how to begin to express their feelings for the other:
“[Betty’s] watch says it’s past seven. There are badges to sew onto Little Hazel’s brownie dress, smalls to rinse, sandwiches to make, homework to check (…) What if she stood up now and just started walking? What if she walked across the paddock and climbed through the fence and walked right up to his door?” (p. 186)
For the kookaburras in the trees, mateship is a simple matter. But for the humans on the ground below, the rituals surrounding love are fraught with complications.
Mateship with Birds is one of those elegant, slow novels I find utterly irresistible. Within a matter of paragraphs, Tiffany’s lush narrative falls into step with the laidback rhythm of country life. But this is not some kind of sentimental, landscape-driven piece, nor is it a romance novel. It’s something entirely different – a devastatingly smart, original work of fiction that speaks in an understated, confident voice.
Tiffany’s writing crackles with originality. Harry’s useless farm dog, a whippet, is described as “an antler covered in warm velvet” Later, when Harry notices the imprints left on the back of Betty’s legs after she’s been sitting on the grass, he’s reminded of ancient Egypt, wondering “if hieroglyphics is not a written language after all, but the marks early crops made on the skin of women when they lay down in the fields to rest.” (p. 23)
For some reason, the term “worldbuilding” is usually only employed in relation to genre fiction – but I think it’s actually rather apt when considering Mateship with Birds. Tiffany brings Cohuna, 1953 to life with the lightest of touches. There’s something so satisfying about the way, for instance, that the old men Betty cares for at the nursing home where she works have the same last names as Betty’s teenage son, Michael’s classmates.
When I saw Carrie Tiffany speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year, she spoke of the immense amount of research that went into creating Mateship with Birds. Wherever she could, she drew upon facts to add a sense of life to her novel. Everything from the fanciful names of the various cattle products Harry keeps on the shelf in his dairy to the book Harry reads on a trip to the Echuca library, they’re all the product of hours of research. Rather than feeling like historical namedropping, the effect turns Cohuna, 1953 into a world of its own; a self-contained bubble of time. It’s these subtle details that build this novel’s world so effectively; so efficiently.
Dispensing with chapters, Mateship with Birds is presented as a sequence of scenes, sliding gracefully between the novel’s characters and their memories, their dreams and their fantasies. Amongst all that, Tiffany also includes her characters’ writings. Betty’s youngest, Little Hazel, writes a nature diary as a homework task at school, and it’s presented in two parts in the text. There’s also the contents of Betty’s pinboard, as well as the observations Harry writes on the family of kookaburras living in the gumtree by his dairy.
When Michael, Betty’s teenage son, begins spending time with Dora, his first girlfriend, and suddenly loses interest in his birdwatching sessions with Harry, Harry takes an old milk ledger from a shelf in his dairy and begins to write his thoughts down instead. With only half a page upon which to write, Harry’s thoughts are forced into a shape that resembles poetry. His notes are half a conversation with the absent Michael, veering between everyday language and startlingly lovely observations that seem to come from nowhere:
“You wouldn’t say they were good parents,
or good siblings,
they keep the bub alive.
They tolerate his whining,
his feeble attempts to fly
And as soon as there is danger
they are fierce to protect and defend.
from where I stand,
from on the ground,
looks like love.” (p. 179)
Scattered throughout the novel, Harry’s notes on the kookaburra family serve as a reminder of the passing seasons, and as a frame through which we view Betty and Harry’s equally dysfunctional human “family” below.
In contrast to Harry’s birdwatching notes, Harry also writes a series of letters to Michael. With Betty clearly in denial as to the exact nature of Michael’s relationship with Dora (they’re “study-buddies”, she asserts) Harry decides to take the place of a father and teach Michael the truth about what happens between men and women. In a series of letters, delivered without Betty’s knowledge, Harry describes his sexual experiences the only way he knows how – using the vocabulary of science, drawing on examples and metaphors from the farming world. Describing an incident with a former lover, he writes:
“The internal skin of the female organ is pitted with oil-producing glands that release on arousal. In my experience a slight dampening is the usual state of play, but this particular afternoon Edna was irrigated full-bore” (p. 120)
Harry’s letters to Michael are kind, overly earnest, often a little too detached from the emotion of sex than the act of it. His enthusiasm; his naivety and curiosity is clearly evident. His letters are an act of kindness. But again, like Harry’s birdwatching notes, it’s a one-sided conversation. Unfortunately, we never really hear what Michael thinks of Harry’s letters. Evidently, Michael, a resourceful, intelligent teenage boy, has his own ideas.
In her brilliant review of Mateship with Birds for the Sydney Morning Herald, Helen Elliott referred to the novel as “the sweetest book about sex you will ever read”. Speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Tiffany responded to this comment, adding that she considers desire the subject of her novel, rather than sex.
Desire is a powerful presence in Mateship with Birds – it seems to hover in the spaces between each word. It’s an unstoppable force; something that must be expressed or it turns and twists upon itself, turning into something awful.
Mateship with Birds is not all sweetness. There’s a dark side to desire, and Tiffany doesn’t shy away from exploring this. For all this novel’s tenderness, there’s an intensity at work in Mateship with Birds; a lingering uneasiness that finds its way in around the edges and catches hold.
Disarmingly sensuous, Mateship with Birds isn’t quite like other novels. It’s clever without being showy; it’s delightfully slow without ever losing its momentum. It’s a strange bird indeed, but without a doubt, Mateship with Birds is a thing of rare beauty.