Mateship with Birds focuses on the lives of dairy farmer Harry, and his neighbour, single mother Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Set in countryside Victoria, in the 1950s, the book subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) explores themes of desire, courtship and sex against a backdrop populated with Australian iconic birds.
Harry has long been single, his wife having left him for another man, and he fills his days with tending to his dairy cows, who have endearing names such as Pineapple, Enid, Fatty, Big Joyce and Pauline, to name but a few, and distinct personalities to match. The cows have a presence all of their own and I love this scene (below). It is filled with power and movement, and brings an every day moment in the dairy to the fore:
“On these wet mornings the world seems close around them – Harry and the herd. It is the same greasy rain that hits them both, that sticks to hide and skin, that gushes down their legs and gathers in their eyelashes. Harry opens the gate and pushes in among them. Their blood is hot. Each cow gives off her own great heat and takes in the heat of her sisters. They are urgent with milk and hunger, stamping and bellowing and thrusting out their necks.” (p.4)
Harry also has an affinity for bird watching, in particular the kookaburra family that has taken up residence, and his binoculars are never far from hand; Harry observes the kookaburra family’s interactions with regularity and affection. Carrie Tiffany brings birds to the forefront in this book and they offer a charming and delightful segue throughout the narrative, giving a voice to Australian birds that we know well but are generally relegated to the periphery of human life. In some sections the life of birds is just as dramatic as the lives of the main characters. The birds are not only seen but also heard, their partnerships are vibrantly alive, and losses are keenly felt. Carrie brings into focus the large space that birds fill through songs, colour and plumage, and their battle to survive nature and machine.
“A honey eater,
sleeps it off
beneath a flowering gum.
Until Dad, perched above,
notices the jerky
intoxicated cycling of its twiggy legs.
That’s dinner sorted.” (p.90-91)
One underlying theme is the rhythm of farm life, its solidity and receptiveness, but we are also exposed to the harsh realities, experienced through moments of violence, and the peculiarities of country life. Sex, life and death are explored through the discerning eyes of adults and the curious eyes of children.
Harry has come to care deeply for his neighbour Betty and her two children but his gentle, shy nature sees him dance about the object of his affection without openly declaring his feelings. Betty wrestles with her own feelings for Harry but rather than voice them, she indulges in fantasies of desire. As Michael approaches sexual maturity, Harry, taking on the role of surrogate father, decides to offer advice on the act of sex. A man of few words, Harry makes some clumsy attempts at explaining sex to young Michael and resorts to writing letters, using farming anecdotes and scientific analogies as his rationale. For example, in one letter to Michael, Harry covers the topic of kissing:
“The male and female kissing equipment – mouth, tongue, mechanisms of salivation – are strikingly similar, excepting scale.” (p.169)
For all of his well-meaning attempts, Harry tends to see the female body in more mechanical terms, and neglects to advise Michael of the emotional aspects, the importance of love, and this could be indicative of how men viewed women and relationships in the 1950s.
Mateship with Birds is composed of a series of narratives, moments in time, poems (that Harry writes in the columns of an old ledger), and letters. The pace is unhurried but not slow, and for me it was akin to strolling along a country road, where everything on the horizon is visible but then a bird, a cow or person comes into sharp focus and my attention is fully engaged, watching, listening, before moving on. There is beauty in the everyday but also recognition of the banal and Carrie Tiffany manages to convey these elements without overly romanticising country life.
“[Harry] leans against the Waratah, one hand resting on the strip of Axminster glued to the tank, the other cooling around the beer. The net curtains are drawn across the long window in the front sitting room; they hang a foot or so short of the floor. A few dead flies lie behind the glass and further in he can see three pairs of slippers, the mottled flesh rising out them like puddings.” (p.196)
Mateship with Birds shows country and farming life through a different lens, one that is at times both gentle and cruel, comedic and peculiar, practical and romantic. The story unfolds through a multitude of different heartbeats and a reveals a tenderness that will stay with you. A truly delightful book.
Carrie Tiffany is an award-winning author and her second novel, Mateship with Birds, was the winner of both The Stella Prize (2103), and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (2013), and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2013).
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador 2012)