Winner 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;
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 framework 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
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)