‘Mateship with Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship with Birds is Carrie Tiffany’s second novel and, like her first, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, it is set in rural Australia.

The story is described as such –

“On the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, a lonely farmer trains his binoculars on a family of kookaburras that roost in a tree near his house. Harry observes the kookaburras through a year of feast, famine, birth, death, war, romance and song. As Harry watches the birds, his next door neighbour has her own set of binoculars trained on him. Ardent, hard-working Betty has escaped to the country with her two fatherless children. Betty is pleased that her son, Michael, wants to spend time with the gentle farmer next door. But when Harry decides to teach Michael about the opposite sex, perilous boundaries are crossed.”

Before I go any further, I’ll add a disclaimer to this review. Many moons ago I worked in the same industry as Carrie and in fact she was a special guest at my book group when she published her first (and thoroughly charming) novel. At that book group meeting, Carrie revealed that when Everyman’s Rules For Scientific Living was in the first stages of editing, she was advised that the book needed ‘a bit more sex’. Carrie certainly hold back in Mateship With Birds.

Mateship With Birds is all about sex. But within context. It’s also about families and unions, the peaks and troughs in relationships and love versus lust.

In one sense it’s sex at its most basic and most primal – this is perfectly revealed at the beginning when Betty’s daughter, Little Hazel, is ‘flashed’ at by a questionable neighbour. Yet these sections of the story sit alongside finer, gentle observations – the life of a family of kookaburras, told in verse; Little Hazel’s matter-of-fact school nature diary; and Harry’s candid letters about his sexual history to Betty’s son, Michael.

Seemingly insignificant asides engage the reader on an emotional level – for example, the fact that Harry kept his ex-wife’s magazines and particurlarly favoured one short story. Likewise, Betty goes through the touching charade of playing the ‘visiting wife’ for the eldery gentleman that reside at the nursing home where she works. Mention must also be made of the long, soulful looks across paddocks – obviously the ‘mateship’ of the title refers to both the human and animal ‘characters’.

For me, the star of the book was Betty’s daughter, Little Hazel. She’s honest, beautifully naive and generous in spirit. The scene where the neighbour, Mues, ‘flashes’ at her (although it was stronger than that) is a perfect example. Mues lures her into his shed with the promise of seeing his Shetland pony. Little Hazel loves ponies.

“Little Hazel frowns, tries again to look for the pony, then returns her gaze to the dick….. Little Hazel doesn’t scream, doesn’t feel sick, doesn’t run away. She just feels disappointed. Hugely disappointed. She thinks that it has all been pointless – the cutting-out of pictures from magazines, the books borrowed from the library. The drawings attempted, rubbed out, attempted again in her treasured scrapbook where the Shetland’s neck was always too long or the Shetland’s legs too thin, or she’d had to use blue for the tail as the black had run out. At that moment Little Hazel understands that she will never, ever, get a Shetland pony.”

I won’t give away any of the story but as it progresses, you can’t help but nurse hopes for some of the characters. The ending took me by surprise – it was raw, abrupt and reminded me of the force of basic animal instinct.

Read Mateship With Birds accompanied by a Sunday roast with all the trimmings, just as Betty cooks.

5/5 – if writing style can be true to the Australian agricultural  landscape, this is it – sparse, brittle, obvious. But look a little closer and you’ll find there’s much more to see.