So as it is, or probably with the time difference and the fact I have ended up working six hours from home today (on a Sunday and everything), Australia Day today I thought it would be nice to get a review of some Australian literature up on Savidge Reads. I am often telling myself I must read more Australian fiction as I like it whenever I do and so it seems an appropriate nudge. After much mulling and debate I settled on Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany, which won the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013 and which I have had waiting on the shelves for too long. Far too long as it turned out as I was left rather astounded by this book.
On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.
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. Plants shelterbelts to reduce wind speed. Elastic ropes of snot hang from their nostrils; their hocks are stuck with shit.
There is much to love in Mateship with Birds but what stood out for me was the depiction of two people who are intensely lonely. No matter how many cows Harry has to milk, inseminate and calf or how much interest he takes in the birdlife he is a man who has been left by his wife and left with a huge chasm he doesn’t know what to do with. Betty may have her day job caring in nursing home and two school children/early teenagers to look after yet her life is spent pretty much in an internal monologue, and one that is filled with disappointment and heartache, she knows people talk about her in the town and avoids it, and mirrors, all she can.
Betty tries not to look at her reflection in the co-op window. She glances. There’s nobody about. She stands in front of the glass, pulls her stomach in and smiles. The puffy flesh of her cheeks rises up around her eyes and she is brought up sharp by the sight of herself so doughy, so exposed, like when her hair has just been cut and set and there is too much of herself on display. This is how she feels most of the time now; always blowsy, always overstuffed.
Harry and Betty have befriended each other out of mutual loneliness and mutual interest, there is an underlying tension between them which they never talk about. Both headed for middle age they have no one else and so Harry regularly visits for Sunday dinner or to help out and has indeed taken Michael under his wing on the farm and in the ways of being a man, which leads to Harry writing to Michael about how life was for him as a teenager and pass on all his, in unflinching detail, experience with women and sex. Let’s say we soon learn he might not be the best man to pass advice onto.
Writing is actually a big theme in the book, which makes sense when you have so many characters with little to do and so much going on in their heads. Harry writes the letters to Michael, he also keeps a note of the lives of the kookaburra family that nest nearby, written in the most gorgeous verse it is pure poetry. Keeping with nature, another major theme of the book, Little Hazel keeps her nature diary, and her mother a diary of the children’s illnesses year by year. Each of these forms of writing gives another insight into all the characters and often adds a real sense of humour to what could have possibly become a depressing book though never does.
Michael: Concussion from bicycle accident, infected toe from spider bite (?), kicked by cow, v. bad cough, pecked by gander, eye infection, warts on feet, skewered with fork, burnt foot, constipation, infected splinter, nits.
Little Hazel: Tummy upset, headaches, chilblains, pecked by gander, warts, cough, scratched by cat, diarrhoea, nits.
I mentioned the theme of sex previously and indeed it is one of the main themes of the book. Okay, let us be frank there is A LOT of sex in Mateship with Birds, though really any surprise about that should be left at the door when ‘mateship’ is in the title yet it may surprise some as every few pages or so one of the characters either masturbates, inseminates or ejaculates at some point – or thinks about doing it. This will not be for all readers, as it is rather graphic, and I know some readers went completely off the book for it. Yet Mateship with Birds is a very animalistic and quite grubby (in a muddy sense initially) book anyway so I personally thought it worked really well and made sense often working as a metaphor for what else was going on in the book or a way of unleashing internal mental frustrations as well as the physical ones. Plus you also have a group of characters who have very little else going on, throw in that and the heat and it’s all going to get a bit heightened.
When the air is dry and thin
you can hear the river birds to the north.
I thought at first
they were an echo,
but when you get your ear in
that each family sings its own song.
I do hope the sex factor doesn’t put people off this books though as really what Mateship with Birds is all about is loneliness, wanting to belong and looking at the question of what family is. I think Carrie Tiffany excels as she manages to create a novel that reminds us we aren’t so different from the birds and animals around us we like to think, we are all beasts and we function the way nature intended us to.
I do love an ‘earthy’ book and a grubby countryside setting – as I think there can be much darker things going on behind those countryside curtains, I also love a book with fully formed and rather dysfunctional characters whose lives you get thrown into. All of these loves are ticked in Mateship with Birds and more. It is wonderfully written and I highly recommend you give it a whirl; sex, warts and all!