Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds (Picador 2012)
This little book is populated by a handful of painfully shy individuals living on the outskirts of a small Australian town in the 1950s. There’s Betty Fletcher and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. The children were conceived and born elsewhere, but it’s not the kind of town where people pry into one another’s business. Mues, one of their neighbours, is a retired slaughterer and a pretty unsavoury character – he exposes himself to Little Hazel in the first couple of pages, and it’s a sign of things to come that the little girl, far from being traumatised, is profoundly disappointed that his promise to show her a pony was a trick, that adults can’t be counted on: ‘they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.’ the other neighbour is Harry, a dairy farmer, who has become a virtual member of their family, having dinner with them and being called over to help with masculine tasks like removing a dead possum from their roof. And then there’s Harry’s dairy herd, half a dozen kookaburras and sundry other specimens of animal and bird life.
Not a lot happens: Harry takes notes on the kookaburras’ family life, and his milking of the cows is beautifully described; Betty works in an old men’s home, and her warm-hearted management of their needs is not so very different from Harry’s caring for his cows; Hazel keeps a journal about the bird life at school, and it wins second prize; Harry and Betty have an undeclared mutual attraction that builds convincingly over years; Harry decides to take on young Michael’s sex education, which he does in awkwardly comic conversations and in long letters that are a mix of frank personal reminiscence and weirdly detailed accounts of human female anatomy (possible the book’s central tension hinges on these letters – will he actually give them to Michael, and if so what will happen?); Michael embarks on his own sexual experiences; Mues makes an occasional appearance, each less savoury than the last.
It’s not a book to read for the plot. Tension builds and is resolved without insulting the reader’s intelligence, but the main pleasure is in the way we come to know and care about the characters and understand their place and time. They live in a harsh enough world – not exactly nature red in tooth and claw, but death and an uncompromising physicality are everywhere. If you think of kookaburras as slightly comic, benign creatures, Harry’s observations will put you right. Likewise, big-eyed dairy cattle aren’t all sweetness and light, and looking after old men with dementia isn’t work for those of delicate sensibilities. Yet the depiction of this harsh world is suffused with a warm, compassionate affection the way a Drysdale landscape is with light. That is, things may not be pretty, but they’re closely observed with what, if it’s not love, will do till love comes along.
One small note: I was unsettled when I recognised one of Harry’s personal recollections as an episode from Havelock Ellis’s autobiography, relocated from the London Zoo to an Australian country orchard (if you’re curious you can google “Havelock Ellis” “I did not mean you to see that”). This made me wonder about the sources of the sex education passages. Harry does drop in at the town library and, improbably, read a book by Havelock Ellis (not the autobiography), so perhaps that is an implied acknowledgement. A note up the back acknowledges that the novel’s title is pinched from a 1922 book by Alec Chisolm, perhaps implying that the bird descriptions owe a debt to that book. I guess that’s all fodder for scholars.