CAUTION –SPOILER ALERT
Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, Mateship with Birds is widely described as a book about family. My reading, however, casts the principle theme as loneliness, with the family, or lack of it as the setting.
Central to the novel is the family group of single mother Betty and her children Michael and ‘Little Hazel’ and their neighbour Harry, a divorced dairy farmer. Living in the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, the family operates with Harry as unofficial surrogate father, and their joint existence tetters on the potential of greater intimacy. This unspoken connection is a lonely one:
Harry looks out of the window at the jasmine curling around the verandah posts. It is his cutting. He brought it over in a kerosene tin when they first arrived. Over the years he’s trained it up the posts, steering it away from the gutters and towards the front door. Sometimes Sip will come back from visiting Little Hazel with a garland of jasmine around her neck and sneezing at the sweet juice of it. Sometimes he’ll notice Betty with a few squashed flowers in her hair. It is worse to be here with them, in the house but separate, than to be alone. (p.89)
Betty works at the local aged care home where the male clients read like a litany of disappointment. On her lunchbreak she leaves by the back door, dresses up and returns as the lunchtime wife of the men. Whether these lunchtime encounters include sex is unstated. However, the tone of the book certainly deems this possible, particularly when one old man leaves his wife’s wedding dress ‘For Betty’ upon his death.
Laced through the novel are Harry’s diarised observations of a family of kookaburras that inhabit his property. Reputedly the relaying of their rituals and altercations was an attempt to engage the reader in their fascinating lives, and possibly to drawn comparisons between them and the human characters. Not for me. As the book neared its close, I found myself skimming through these seemingly endless entries. Perhaps I’m not keen enough on birds.
In truth, I was more interested in Harry’s cows than the birds, despite the credence given to the later by the novel’s title.
On these wet mornings the word 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…. They don’t fear Harry. They don’t fear any man or dog, even a proper farm dog. What they fear is being alone. Being left behind. (p.4-5)
The manner in which Harry regards Betty seems akin to the way he views his herd of cows:
When she stands he notices the roundness of her belly, her dinner not yet digested. (p 89)
Obsessive and frequent sexual references are such that one never knows what assault will be wrought on the reader as page follows page. And here comes the spoiler. Towards the close the novel’s most unattractive character Mues, abuser of birds and guilty of indecent exposure, is found to have had a long-term sexual relationship with one of his sheep. It is a moment that is shocking and yet unsurprising given the novel’s trajectory.
As transfixed as this novel is on sex, on primal need, and on its centrality to our humanity and sense of worth, the sexual act is not ultimately posited as the solution to loneliness. Even in the final scene where, (thank heaven for that), Harry and Betty consummate their desire, the scene is strangely empty and almost sterile.
There is beautiful writing here certainly, and one imagines that is what won Carrie Tiffany the (inaugural) Stella Prize and the Christina Stead Prize, and had it short-listed for the Encore Award, Western Australian Premier's Book Awards, Prime Ministers Literary Award for fiction, Miles Franklin Award, Victorian Premier's Literary Award for fiction and the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2013.
But my book club were all agreed. This book had such a masculine tone, had we not know otherwise we'd have assumed it had been written by a man. The back-cover blurb promised something quite different to the nature of its contents.
I am sorry to say I did not love it.
I was happy to put it down.