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Archive for April, 2013

Mateship with Birds by Carrie TiffanyWinner of the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013, Carrie Tiffany’s tender and sensual Mateship with Birds is the follow-up to her acclaimed debut Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living. Set in Cohuna, rural Victoria, in the 1950s, the story focuses on the gentle-souled Harry, a dairy farmer with a love of birds (and a relish for sex), and Betty, his lonely and lovelorn neighbour, who has escaped the city with her two children, Little Hazel and Michael.

Harry comes over to help them about the house; and visits for Sunday ‘tea’, but feels awkward and leaves directly after because he’s unsure of what should happen next. He ‘knows everything about birds’, which given his unresolved desire for Betty, has a nice note of irony to it. Helping him about the dairy farm on occasion is Michael, who is coming into adolescence and beginning to wonder about girls.

Harry takes it upon himself to teach the lad all he knows about women. Like most men, and certainly most men in the ‘50s, Harry finds talking about such delicate matters difficult. So he writes a diary in verse about the family of kookaburras on his farm, and a much more explicit and direct treatise on sexual matters in a series of letters he gives to Michael—unbeknownst to Betty.

There is much to admire about Tiffany’s craft. I loved the emphasis the first line of dialogue places on the theme of the story. Tellingly, I think, we have to wait until page four for it. Harry is speaking to Betty about his motorbike, and says, ‘It’s a constant labour of love’. The wry Betty replies, ‘It’s just a constant labour, if you ask me.’ It points to the way Tiffany approaches the sexual tension between Harry and Betty: in layers. The lack of dialogue is a feature of the story. There’s a lot that remains unsaid here!

The fragmented narration lends the story another layer of tension. Interspersed within the ongoing developments are snippets of Harry’s verse and letters, Betty’s records of the children’s illnesses and mishaps (the final entry for Michael is “boys’ troubles”, Little Hazel’s bird report for school, as well as memories about past lives and loves. Harry recalls his failed marriage (his wife, rather ironically runs off with another bird watcher, indeed: none other than the President of the Birds Observers’ Club of Victoria!), as well as his own uncertain experiences with sex, including his first lesson: which came in the form of a lecture from a vicar.

It might be fragmented structurally, but each section plays its part and links with other parts. The result is a story dripping with sex, from Freudian dreams, to first experiences, fantasies, masturbation, the milking of cows (yes, it too is related to sex), and perversions (on a neighbouring farm). It’s even present in the birds Harry observes—he describes the skin beneath a particular bird’s feathers as ‘penile’. It’s ‘mateship’ in every sense of the word, and adds a lovely piquancy to the title, which is borrowed from Alec Chisholm’s 1922 naturalist book of the same name.

There is love, too, though. The way Harry tricks up Little Hazel’s sleeping quarters with kapok to make it look like fake snow is touching, as is the way he guides Michael. He cares for them, and they for him, making him lovely presents. Underlining things are several references to wedding dresses.

Harry is a very keen observer of birds; his kookaburras study is very poetic:

A high branch is chosen for hunting.

The kookaburra sits,

watching the ground,

waiting for something to move across its eye.

Then it drops through all that air;

silent, lead-beaked,

like an anchor through seawater.

Tiffany, an agricultural journalist ‘by trade’ (we all know she’s really an author), writes with an authenticity about dairy farming that rivals the way Gillian Mears writes about horses, and even gives Melville a run for his whaling. The same can be said for the way she writes about the human body—it’s laced with visceral immediacy and honesty. The characters’ bodies, particularly Harry and Betty’s, are real. This gives the underlying desire a potent physicality. So when Betty ‘thinks’ the following we feel the thoughts permeating her every fibre: ‘What if she stood up now and just started walking? What if she walked across the paddock and climbed through the fence and walked right up to his door?’

Of course, this being a love story, soon thereafter a spanner is thrown in the works, with Betty finding the explicit letters Harry is writing for Michael’s sex ed. She is none too pleased with them.

Mateship with Birds is a fine exploration of sexual desire within the Australian Women Writers 2013 badgeframework of the natural world. It’s a perfect length, and a worthy winner of the Stella Prize. As a mark of Tiffany the person, she split off a chunk of her Stella winnings and divided it with the other nominees. Kudos to her; it’s a lovely touch.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of judges for the Stella, has thoughtfully summarised the winner here.

Lisa @ ANZ Litlovers liked it too.

Another AWW2013 read. What a wonderful year of reading I’m having!

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

2012

Picador

208 pages

ISBN: 9781742610764

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

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The Spare Room by Helen GarnerThe Spare Room is a slim volume with a weighty theme. Our first person narrator Helen lives in Melbourne, and the very ill Nicola has flown down from Sydney for a three week stay to undergo alternative cancer treatment at the dubious Theodore Clinic. Helen prepares the spare room for Nicola, knowing she has cancer but not expecting the whirlwind that is about to come blowing through her house and life.

Nicola has stage-four bowel cancer but is in denial, placing faith in positive intentions to overcome the Big C. She believes the Theodore’s shonky vitamin C, cupping and sauna treatments (and coffee enemas) will have the illness on the run within weeks. (As a measure of how left-field vitamin C is as a treatment, I thought they were at first using it as a euphemism for Chemo, as in Vitamin Chemo.)

Helen is the pragmatist, the one who sees through all the ‘bullshit’. She wants to tell Nicola to face facts but she feels uncomfortable stealing the last vestiges of hope from her, to be the one who tells her she is going to die.

Nicola won’t take proper pain medication, something that puts Helen under a lot of strain, feeling that to try to deny death ‘drives madness into the soul’, a fact that is borne out by the way she and Nicola’s other friends take on Nicola’s anger, as if she gives it off like ‘static electricity’. With the countless nightly bedding changes because of Nicola’s night-sweats, the cooking, cleaning, shopping and escorting, as well as the anger at the mountebank Professor Theodore, it’s no wonder Helen becomes increasingly frustrated.

The whole story is moving, but the heart-rending confrontation when it comes is particularly so. In between there are moments of warmth and levity, with the company of grandchildren enjoyed and jokes shared (including a hilarious debate about the quality of coffee used for those enemas – organic or instant?!)

Part of Garner’s appeal is her sparse prose, which gives the story addedAustralian Women Writers 2013 badge authority. Garner draws on her experience of caring for friend Jenya Osbourne when Osbourne was dying, a fact that shows through on every page. The Spare Room reads more like memoir than fiction. Whatever the label we might put on it, though, it has an authenticity that speaks to all of us.

It’s Garner at her best, but then, when is she not?

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

2008

Text

195 pages

ISBN: 9781921520280

Source: the local municipal library

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The Sydney Writers’ Festival program was launched on Friday. To be held in the third week of May, you can review the program here.

Big name international authors include Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Anita Desai. I’m looking forward to hearing the thoughts of James Wood, famous literary critic at The New Yorker magazine, and attending sessions on reading the classics, with Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White. There’s plenty of strong Aussie authors appearing, including Michelle de Krester, Gillian Mears, and Graeme Simsion amongst many others. There’s also a session on Pride and Prejudice, marking the 200-year anniversary of its publication.  

As always, there’s much on offer and many clashes! Looks like being a great few days.

I hope to see you in the crowd!

John

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The Great Fire by Shirley HazzardSet in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the whole world was in a state of flux, and opening up like a flower from the heart of Asia to encompass England, Italy, Germany and New Zealand, The Great Fire is a sublimely crafted work of fiction. The story centres around honourable British war-hero Aldred Leith, thirty-three years old, who, after walking across China arrives in Japan to continue his study of ‘the consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society’.

Pitching up in Kure, near Hiroshima, Aldred meets the two erudite and very close Australian teen siblings, Benedict (Ben) and Helen, offspring of the hideous Brigadier Driscoll and his inane wife. Poor Ben is dying of a debilitating and incurable illness. Helen is sixteen years Aldred’s junior but, despite his misgivings about the age gap, a love develops between them…

Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, [Aldred] had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with [Helen].

Needless to say the Brigadier and Mrs Driscoll are not impressed. It is a forbidden love, one that will be tested in a great fire of its own before Helen and Aldred know whether it has turned to ash or steel.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Peter Exley, another learned Australian and good friend of Aldred, is interviewing survivors of war camps as part of his investigation into war crimes. Aldred saved Exley’s life in the war and feels, as per a Chinese proverb, somewhat responsible for him. He visits Exley in HK for a time. We learn about Exley’s backstory and circumstances in much detail, a point to which I’ll return later. Aldred tells Exley about Helen. Exley approves.

From there the inevitable separations occur. Exley promises to follow Aldred back to Japan at some point, partly in order to meet Helen, but is laid low by illness. Then in an act of cruelty that is heart-rending for us readers, the Driscolls send Ben off to the US alone for treatment. They then take Helen to New Zealand while Aldred is called back to the UK after the death of his distant author father. They are at the opposite ends of the world.

The writing is, in a word, glorious. Told in what has become an unfashionable omniscient narrator, the prose has a timeless quality to it, heightened perhaps by the lack of urgency until the final third or so. The reader is invited into a world of shifting colonial sands, experiences the lives of people exiting a terrible epoch and entering a new, uncertain one, all of them fearing another world war.

How often we question longlists and shortlists of literary prizes, and even their winners. Not this time. Judges on both sides of the Pacific fell for The Great Fire. It won the 2003 National Book Award in the USA and the 2004 Miles Franklin Award in Australia. The prose is lucid and exacting. There are so many wonderful images, descriptions and wordplays it feels wrong to highlight any. (The word dilettante is used, which alone must be worth the Miles Franklin!)

Still, I’ll give you a flavour, a sentence or two picked (almost) at random. A humble old mirror, whose quicksilver had been ‘got at’ by damp, is described as being ‘like the draped pelt of some desiccated leopard.’ A perfect image.

Characters descriptions receive the same care. A girl is described as having a ‘jostle’ of teeth. Right down to each word choice, Hazzard hits the right note.

How about the word play in this sentence describing part of Hong Kong harbour:

The … junks with tan sails boned like fans and the tan-coloured bony man at the stern working the yuloh;

And there is Aldred’s arrival in Kure, where he is picked up from the train in a jeep. As he travels along:

You could just see an arc of coastal shapes, far out from ruined docks: hills with rare lights and a black calligraphy of trees fringing the silhouettes of steep islands.

The style could be called ‘lyrical simplicity’, which might sound paradoxical, but I’m sticking with it. This last quote is part of the first chapter, which in many ways is a microcosm of the book. It opens with Aldred leaving the ‘charred suburbs’ of Tokyo on a train for Kure, contemplating a picture of his distant father on the back of one of his novels. Here we have the sense of travelling that is so much a part of the story to come, a rickety journey away from the horrors of war toward something brighter.

In Kure he seeks out a westerner called Ginger, who is suffering from radiation sickness after ‘being through the fire’ of Hiroshima. Aldred wants to ask him about the war and its aftermath, and although Ginger does tell him a little about the Driscoll’s compound where Aldred will be staying while in Kure, the two of them end up in intimate discussion about past loves. Even in the throes of Ginger’s death, which ends the chapter, the business of war is put to one side because of this more vital thing—love.

There is, though, this sinister layering of death following Aldred wherever he goes, forming a dark backdrop to the love that grows between him and Helen. We are always wondering which of these forces will win out: love or death? The lingering doubt builds through the final third of the story. The tension in the constant tilting of the impending fates is masterfully managed.  I’m not giving anything away by saying the ending is utterly fabulous.

If there are faults with the novel they lie with Peter Exley, who is given perhaps too much attention for a secondary character. For a time it felt as though the story might be about both Aldred and Peter, but it then really zeroes in on Aldred and Helen’s relationship and the question of whether they will get together. As such, the time spent in Peter’s point of view in Hong Kong when Aldred isn’t there is a strange indulgence, forgivable only because the writing is so damned good.

After reading Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson, a story Australian Women Writers 2013 badgebased on HHR’s own studying at the Leipzig Conservatorium, here we have another novel that uses the author’s experience as fuel for the fire: Helen’s life parallels that of the younger Hazzard, who grew up in Sydney, moved with her diplomatic parents to Hiroshima in 1947, then Hong Kong and New Zealand. She later spent a year in Italy and now resides between New York and Capri. (Having been to Capri, I can’t say I blame her!) It’s no wonder The Great Fire, years in the making, embraces so many territories. And not just the geographical and geopolitical, but the most complex terrain of all: the human heart.

A modern classic.

(And another Australian Women’s Writers book! It’s been all Australian women authors for me so far this year. Can I keep it going till the end of the year?)

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

2003

Virago

314 pages

ISBN: 1884081397

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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