Mateship with Birds

Mateship with Birds is Carrie Tiffany’s second novel. Her first, ‘Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living’ (2005) was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Orange Prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. It won the Dobbie Award for Best First Book (2006) and the 2006 Western Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction.

Much has already been written about ‘Mateship With Birds’ since it won the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013 and was shortlisted for a slew of awards, including the Miles Franklin Award 2013, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction 2012, and the Melbourne Prize for Literature Best Writing Award. It was also longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

In a nutshell, I loved this book. I read it in an afternoon while on holiday—it’s short, it’s moving, and it’s very funny. If I had to summarise it in a sentence, I’d say it was a short novel about sex.

The main characters, Harry and Betty, have been neighbours for decades, but always kept a respectable distance. They’re both single, hard-working, salt of the earth people. (Incidentally, why are all simple but good men in fiction called ‘Harry’? And I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever read a book with an evil character named Harry …)

Harry is a dairy farmer, who has been single since his wife left him many years earlier. He’s lonely, and rather fond of his cows, of whom he speaks in a very loving, and at times sexual, manner.

‘When Babs leaves the stalls at unexplained speed, her empty udder slapping slackly between her legs, he watches after her and feels ashamed on her behalf, hoping nobody has seen his good girl with her bloomers showing.’

Betty is a single mother of two children, Michael and Hazel. She’s also lonely, but lacks the confidence to find herself a partner.

‘The people of Cohuna have not seen Betty Reynolds hopeful as she dabs on her lipstick in the morning and then resigned as she wipes it off at night. They have not seen the pile of lipstick-stained tissues that grows day after day in the cheap cane rubbish bin under her dresser to be emptied on Saturday and used to light the fire. They have not seen her undressing in front of the wardrobe mirror, slowly removing her slip, cupping her large, pale breasts in her hands, plucking the hairs that have started to grow around the nipples. They have not seen her grimacing at the exquisite sting of the tweezers, then having to soothe the skin with cold cream and finding herself overcome. Finding herself standing in front of the mirror scolding and hating herself and wondering who she is hurting herself for, and why her body is turning into something else before she has had a chance to discover what it was before.’

As the story continues, the reader learns that although the relationship between Harry and Betty is courteous and at a distance, there’s a yearning and a love that they’re both too fearful to voice.

Harry takes it upon himself to teach Betty’s son, Michael, about the opposite sex, and writes letters to him. They’re filled with Harry’s earthy memories and observations, and his unique take on life and sex and women.

‘Skin. The female is covered with two types of skin. The skin of the body is easily observed on the torso, arms, legs and face. It is essentially the same as the skin of the male, but cut from much finer-grained stuff. The sexual organ (I’m talking inside front of underpants here, Michael), breasts (esp. nipples) and lips feature a skin uniquely inflamed with blood. Unlike the ordinary body skin (and male skin), where the blood runs in controlled networks of veins an arteries and sub-veins and sub-arteries (think horticultural drip-and-pipe irrigation), the blood in the sexual areas is right at the very surface.’

This novel evokes rural Australia in the 1950s well, and Carrie Tiffany’s own rural and agricultural experience is evident. She does a great job of highlighting the sexual repression of the 1950s, and titillating the reader with sensual suggestion, of the shape of a bosom under a blouse, or of a buttock under skirt. And this one:

‘Her finger is on her lip, in that private place underneath the nostrils.’

I was reminded of the power of suggestion, and how alluring what is kept hidden can be.

This is a beautifully crafted book, with not a word out of place or wasted. It’s told with a frankness and simplicity that belies its sophistication. It doesn’t stray from its theme, it’s humorous and moving, and gives us a delightful insight into 1950’s rural Australia.

Mateship With Birds, by Carrie Tiffany. Published by Picador 2012. $19.99

Incidentally, the title, ‘Mateship with Birds’ came from the title of a book of bird notes by Australian writer Alec Chisholm, published in 1922.

Mateship with Birds, Chisholm

This is my first review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2015.