This review of Mateship With Birds is a guest post from Dina Ross who blogs at the wonderful books blog, Books Now! Dina also presents Pageturners, a monthly radio show on 3mbs, 103.5 FM and at http://www.3mbs.org.au
Let me begin by confessing that I am a city girl. The countryside for me is an alien place. Cows and lambs and green pastures may calm many a savage breast, but they have the opposite effect on me. As writer Susan Cheever noticed – memorably – the country is uncomfortably noisy. To which I would add: and you can’t get a decent cup of coffee.
But I digress (you’re also welcome to take issue with me). Australian writer Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds won both the Stella Prize for fiction and the NSW Premier’s Award this year. It was also hotly tipped to win the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, although this was awarded in June to Michelle de Kretser for Questions of Travel.
Tiffany’s first book, Everyman’s Guide to Scientific Living, as well her latest novel, both have rural settings and they’re populated by decent, ordinary folk, who run their farms with pride and live their lives modestly and without fuss. They face their troubles as best they can, keep calm and carry on.
Set in the 1950s, the novel’s hero, a gentle farmer called Harry, quietly sees to his farm and frequently pops over to visit single mum Betty and her two children Michael and Hazel next door. Their platonic friendship goes on for years. It’s only when Michael enters adolescence that Harry feels that he should give the boy some instruction on the affairs of the heart.
Harry’s reflections on love and sex – as a farmer, his allusions and metaphors center very amusingly on the agricultural – are juxtaposed with his observations of a kookaburra family who nest on his property. In his diary he notes the passing seasons and their effect on the birds that squabble, starve, feast and raise their young. The lives of the kookaburras, with all their violence and vibrancy, are in sharp contrast to Harry and Betty’s staid, almost monastic existence. Will the coming of spring awaken them?
There is much to admire about this book. Tiffany’s style is honest and direct. She’s not a fan of purple prose. Her dialogue is robust and humorous, her descriptions of country life energetic and sizzling with life. What distinguishes her narrative is the obvious knowledge of her subject that seeps through the pages. Here is someone with complete understanding of the land and its people.
I question, however, why Harry’s diary is laid out like a prose poem. He may be a poet who doesn’t know it, but it felt to me too self-conscious a literary device. Similarly, I don’t believe any 12 year-old schoolgirl anywhere in the world, even in the 1950s, would use the word “flaunt” in a school essay. But these are quibbles. Mateship With Birds is a fine book and deserves to be read. And there is a great deal of homespun wisdom in its pages.
Mateship With Birds is published by Picador, and is sold online for $19.99