A Short Novel about Watching Birds

My Women Writers Month may be over, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned the fairer sex completely.  I still have a few books by female writers to get through, mostly by Australian authors – which is handy for two of the challenges I am involved in, the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge.  Last month, I read and reviewed Carrie Tiffany’s first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, and as I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of her second novel at the same time, that’s what you’re getting today 🙂
Mateship with Birds is also set in the Victorian countryside (in the town of Cohuna, near the New South Wales border), but a generation later, in the 1950s.  Betty and her two children, Michael and little Hazel, live by themselves on the edge of town, and their nearest neighbour, Harry, has become a friend who helps out around the house.  Both Harry and Betty are long single, and it is clear from the start that there is a spark between the two.
Apart from staring wistfully at each other’s windows, Harry and Betty spend their time looking after their respective ‘herds’ – Harry’s milk cows and the old men Betty helps to care for at the local nursing home – while Michael begins to realise that there is more to life than school and farming.  When Harry catches his young neighbour in a compromising position one day, he decides that it is time to give the boy some important advice for life…
Mateship with Birds is very different to the usual city-centric Australian fiction, but don’t imagine that life in the country is peaceful and pleasantly bucolic.  The days are full of sex (mainly the people), violence (mainly the birds) and excrement (both), and Tiffany delights in describing it all for us in great detail.  We’re treated to frequent mentions of shit, sweat, piss and slobber, both animal and human.  It’s not always comfortable reading, but it does come across as the natural way of life out in the country…

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was first published in 2005, seven years before Mateship with Birds.  If you were wondering what took Tiffany so long to produce a follow-up book, an interview I spotted recently in The Age might give you the answer.  You see, she actually wrote another book (Freud in the Bush) around a fictional visit the great psycho-analyst (never) made to Australia in 1911.  Originally planning to mock Freud, Tiffany abandoned the book when she realised that she actually agreed with many of his claims…

…and this is painfully evident throughout Mateship with Birds.  The book is littered with Freudian allusions, and the focus on sex is almost obsessive, with (it seems) barely a page passing without some sort of mention.  Oedipal complexes abound, and the fathers you would expect to see in the story are more conspicuous by their absence.  Most of the characters have dreams that any Freudian psycho-analyst would have a field day with, and at one point Harry writes about a childhood memory of his mother doing something very intimate in his presence.  Even the baby kookaburra, feeding its mother for the first time, seems to be in on the act…

It is possible though to think about the story in non-Freudian terms (just about!).  There is a strong focus on family and what that entity actually is.  Whether it’s Betty and her children, Harry’s skittish herd or the laughing kookaburras in the old gum tree, the reader is constantly confronted by family groups, none of which seem perfect or complete in the usual sense.  However, even these groups can be surprisingly strong:

“In the way of a family, the herd is greater than the sum of its members.  Even in a small family, three for instance, Harry has noticed this to be the case.” p.47 (Picador, 2012)

There is also a link back to Everyman’s Rules… in the way that science is shown to be a tool to be used cautiously and sparingly.  The more you attempt to impose science on nature, the more you lose sight of what life is about.  Harry’s sex education lessons (which are certainly more biological than emotional) are a good example of the consequences of forgetting the human element in life.

Objectively speaking, Mateship with Birds is a better book than its predecessor.  It is more cohesive, and the writing feels stronger than in the author’s previous novel.  I loved the little sections where Harry writes about the kookaburra family, the space used in the margins of his notebook forcing his observations into a wonderfully-shaped poetry:
“It seems plausible to consider
that birds were the architects for trees.
A hollow,
or a fork,
for every nesting cradle;
a branch for every grip.
And they designed a structure
to which insects are naturally attracted,
like women to the shops.” (p.135)
Subjectively speaking though, I probably preferred Everyman’s Rules…, purely because of the continual sex references in Mateship for Birds.  While there isn’t a lot of sex in the novel, there’s a hell of a lot written about it, often in fairly blunt terms.  This probably says more about me than the novel (and I certainly wouldn’t want to discuss the matter in therapy…), but it did affect my enjoyment of the book.  The writer defends her position in the interview mentioned above (quite rightly), and I would definitely recommend Mateship with Birds – it’s a very interesting book.  Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you about the adult content 😉
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9 thoughts on “A Short Novel about Watching Birds

  1. Farm lit? Heh! Yep, all women are attracted to shops and all country people are “earthy”. *sigh* I prefer closed curtains, gingham or otherwise, to hide the cliches.

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  2. Excellent review. I found this one a very challenging book. I loved Tiffany's ideas and style, but the content just wasn't for me! Your insight into the author's Freudian research adds a whole other dimension to things.

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  3. Tiffany was very adamant about not wanting to hide the sexual details, but I'm not sure it doesn't do the novel a disservice. Perhaps you'd enjoy 'Everyman's…' more – or perhaps you already have 😉

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  4. I haven't picked it up yet, but I probably would enjoy it more if I ever did so. I generally enjoy rural fiction, so perhaps I just need a little more science and a little less sex and death 😉

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