Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany
Picador 2013 (2012)
Literature; Historical Fiction
I’ve never before labelled a book as “literature” on my blog – the term comes loaded with elitism and the beginnings of a boggy mess – but I felt that to position this novel in the historical fiction genre alone doesn’t quite capture the true nature of the book. Perhaps this, too, speaks to the snobbery inherent in literary circles: that ‘historical fiction’ is akin to ‘women’s fiction’ and, as such, easily dismissed as ‘lite’ and not quite worthy. Mateship with Birds IS historical fiction, in that it takes place in the 1950s (beginning at 1953) – that 50+ years’ gap is really all you need; however, ‘historical fiction’ comes with its own set of expectations – of an authentic historical voice, of period details and links to real-world historical events, and a somewhat older ‘style’ of narration even – which are not really met here.
Instead, Tiffany has created a story that transcends time. The 1950s is a relevant setting, and the period details are present and pertinent (though not overdone), but in terms of personalities, a sense of time and place, of the unravelling of what’s known and the beautifully slow development of new, tender connections – it feels so close and intimate, so personable, that it is easy to forget its place in our past.
Maybe this all seems irrelevant, but since genres affect our expectations, I felt it worth unpacking. Because if you’re at all curious about that elusive, oft-times pretentious label ‘literary’, Tiffany’s novel is a wonderful example of the deft skill and deceptive simplicity that is, I think, the bedrock of excellent literature.
Mateship with Birds is, primarily, about Harry, a divorced dairy farmer outside the small regional town of Cohuna, Victoria. He’s a quiet, observant man who takes holistic care of his cows – which have names like Big Joyce, Pineapple, Enid and Linga Longa Wattle Flower – while imagining himself as their manager and they, star performers on the road. He keeps a notebook in the shed in which he records, in verse form, the goings-ons of the resident kookaburra family: Mum, Dad, Tiny and Club-Toe. His nearest neighbours are Trevor Mues and single mother of two, Betty. Trevor is useful to call upon for help when needed, though his personal habits and sexual interests are disgusting. Betty, though, he is both close yet distant with. Harry helps fill the role of missing husband when something needs fixing or taking care of around the house she rents, but his attraction to her goes unspoken and, seemingly, unrequited, while Betty, in turn, daydreams about Harry while working at the aged care home in town.
Harry also tries to fill the role of father to Betty’s oldest, Michael, in providing sex education for the boy after he walks in on Michael masturbating over a copy of Woman and Home. He does this through letters in which he details his own experiences and provides his own insights – which are quite endearing, really. But his comfortable yet stationary relationship with Betty is ruined when she finds the letters.
The character of Harry is a superb one. Having grown up in the country surrounded by farmers – including my father and grandfather – I am familiar with their distinctive, slow-moving, laconic style of being present. In fact, I would say it feels like home to me. The image of two men standing side-by-side, dressed in soft, well-worn and often stained but clean cotton trousers (navy blue or dark green), the obligatory shirt, sometimes with worn, holey jumper on top, hefty boots and terry-towelling bucket hat. They’d stand beside each other rather than facing, arms crossed or hands in pockets or leaning over a gate, chatting – philosophising. There’s something gentle and tender in the lack of urgency, the low rumbling tones, that I miss – and it’s this something (for which I’m so nostalgic) that Tiffany captures in her portrayal of Harry. On top of that quality, Harry really is a lovely sort, quietly helping out, secretly decorating Little Hazel’s bedroom to make it look like winter, using the stuffing from his pillow for snow.
They walk for a while along the edge of the bank, Harry stopping now and then to measure the channel depth and test the flow of water around his outstretched fingers. The hot edge has gone off the afternoon. There doesn’t seem much need for talk. The bank is narrow so they walk slowly, in single file. Betty is in the lead; Harry hangs far enough back so he can watch the way she moves. He likes her plump forearms, the cardigan pushed up around them; the gilt band of her watch digging into her wrist. He likes the sound of her clothes moving around her middle. When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – the lipstick on her front teeth. He’s been watching all of this, over the years, watching her body age and temper. [p.22]
The lines are blurred between human and animal; Harry anthropomorphises the birds that he watches, the cows that he tends, constructing a language of sex and sensation that binds humans and animals together in a warmly organic world of agriculture. I don’t know how else to describe it except to connect those words together. Tiffany’s own experiences working in the agricultural field show: the book is speckled with interesting glimpses into the details of caring for animals and running a farm, as well as observations about birds – all of which, again, can be seen as a metaphor for humans.
A quality milker demonstrates a calm authority. He milks the herd fast and dry. The atmosphere is of relaxed arousal. [p.129]
The descriptions of sexual activity in all its forms are couched in this language of farming, which we tend to forget is all about reproduction and nurture. Tiffany, here, has also created an atmosphere of ‘relaxed arousal’. The ease with which the lines can become blurred is captured in the shocking moment of discovering that Mues has crossed the line and doesn’t even see a problem with it. This, too, taps into that essential loneliness and isolation which can be the farmer’s lot, even with close neighbours and daily contact. Harry is a deeply sympathetic character, a man of integrity, patience and humility with that hint of childlike innocence that so many farmers have, here in Tasmania (I’m not so familiar with Victorian farmers, but if Mateship with Birds is anything to go by, it seems to be much the same). This quality is amplified by the inclusion of glimpses into Harry as a little boy – the time he stayed at his aunt’s house and took down the cuckoo clock, only to feel complete disappointment at the ‘trick’ of it – and to be punished for breaking it. Betty, too, has a past tinged with sadness and instances of love missing their mark.
There’s an edge to Tiffany’s writing that add tension – hard to grasp but present nonetheless – and the unabashed descriptions of sex and sexual activity actually had the power to discomfit me – a reflection more of my cultural context, I think, than any real kind of prudery. (I’m quite curious about this.) Her descriptions of the landscape are simple yet beautiful – one of my favourites: “The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin.” (p.125) Such descriptions are used sparsely but create vivid images in the mind’s eye. There’s an element of social realism to Mateship with Birds that made the characters feel incredibly real to me: it’s in the skilful simplicity of Tiffany’s sentences, her artful way of capturing a mood, a person, a moment of nerves or a hesitation in the doorway. The birds, too, are characters in their own right, as captured by Harry’s writings and Little Hazel’s nature diary. And it is a bird – the “winking owl on the washing line” – that helps bridge the sudden gap between Harry and Betty and repairs what has been damaged. Subtly colouring everything is this touch of nostalgia, a faint layer of Australiana that isn’t really celebrated or indulged, it just is: part of the setting.
Tiffany’s second novel is fairly short, at just over two hundred pages, but packs a lot. The lives of Harry and Betty and everyone else are interconnected by birds, birds being watched, birds being accidentally killed, birds being befriended and tended. Mateship with Birds is about life, the ugly, sometimes bloody parts of it, the sex and sweat and tears of it, and the love and laughter and dying. The blurb ends with a wonderfully tidy sentence: “On one small farm in a vast, ancient landscape, a collection of misfits question the nature of what a family can be.” This, too, is an essential part of the novel, though not the one that stuck with me the most. But in Harry’s attempts at being a father for someone else’s children, the tender innocence at the core of life is presented as something both humbling, and fraught.
Highly recommended, an excellent read.