Mateship With Birds
Copy courtesy Goodreads First Reads
It’s the 1950’s in country Australia and Harry lives on a dairy farm, looking after his girls (cows) and watching the birds that live on his farm, particularly a family of kookaburras. He watches them go through the seasons, expanding their little family and suffering their losses.
Next door to Harry lives single mother Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Betty keeps a fond eye on Harry, but has refrained from making any moves on him. She is pleased that her son Michael spends time over at Harry’s farm, helping with the milking and learning from the farmer. They are almost a family of two houses until Betty discovers that Harry has taken it upon himself to teach a growing Michael about the facts of life and matters of the opposite sex.
Mateship With Birds is Carrie Tiffany’s second novel and was published last year to critical acclaim. That acclaim has carried over into 2013 as this novel was longlisted, shortlisted and then won the inaugural Stella Prize for women and has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin and also the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). I won it last year in a First Reads giveaway on Goodreads and it’s always been in my TBR pile but it wasn’t until it won the Stella that I moved it to the top of the list.
Firstly, this book is about sex. Not a lot of actual sex but thinking about sex, reflecting on experiences, writing about sex, talking about sex, informing about sex. There’s some child abuse, some bestiality and a fair bit of masturbation. I’ve heard it described as overtly crude and disgusting and I was told that I wouldn’t like it. My husband (who has read her first novel) read this a couple of weeks ago and I asked him if there was a lot of sex in it. He shrugged and said kind of, but it’s all talk. It isn’t like those books you read with the ‘artistic’ covers that I know are really just soft porn.
So it was with a little trepidation that I approached this one – to be honest, I have a terrible record with books that are “prize winners”. But some bloggers that I know and enjoy have really sung this one’s praises and so I was determined to give it a go. And I wasn’t particularly bothered by the sexual references – in fact I think I was almost impressed by how many times Carrie Tiffany managed to get in sexual references or references to people performing bodily functions (and on one occasion, with someone watching) in such a slender novel.
I quite enjoyed a lot of the characterisation in this novel, particularly Harry. He strikes me as quite a stereotypical Aussie country farmer on the outside, a solitary sort of man who watched one woman walk away from him and their quiet but demanding life on the farm. His days revolve around early morning milking, fixing fences, keeping everything on the farm top notch. But he’s also quietly reflective, deeply thoughtful. He spends a large amount of time observing the birds and also puts his thoughts about them down on paper in the form of poetry which definitely breaks the stereotype. I liked that he took it upon himself to try and teach Michael about maturing and puberty because no one taught him and he found himself clueless and struggling. Michael doesn’t have a father in his life so you can see how it might be difficult for him to find out that information. However… his methods of teaching are perhaps a bit out there and not merely just informative. They’re elaborate, flowery and when Betty inadvertently comes across a letter Harry has written for Michael as part of his ‘education’ it’s not such a stretch to see that she might take the wrong idea.
Likewise I liked Betty as well – this is the 1950’s so divorce isn’t common place and Betty is a single mother but it’s never quite stated how she came to be one. She works in an aged care home looking after men who can’t look after themselves and seems to go about her job with the same sort of quiet dedication and determination that she does her life, admiring Harry from afar and simply making the best of her circumstances.
I have to admit, I did feel somewhat unsatisfied with the ending. The book was a series of events or interactions but I feel as though I must’ve skipped one because from one scene to the last, things did change and I’m not quite sure what happened. Did I like this book? To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that either. I didn’t dislike it and it was certainly not a book I ever contemplated not finishing. It was very easy to get through it (although I did skim over some of Harry’s longer poetic homages to his kookaburras). It left me feeling like I wanted a little bit more, like I had failed to grasp the entire meaning – like someone had torn some pages out of my book before I read it. I guess my record with prizewinners continues!
Book #107 of 2013
Mateship With Birds was the 46th novel read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.