Monday, May 6, 2013

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Carrie Tiffany was born in Yorkshire and grew up in Australia. Her debut novel Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living (2005) won several awards and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. A former park ranger, her knowledge of wildlife, birds and nature is evident in Mateship with Birds, her second book, in particular the mating aspects. In fact the whole book has a very earthy and matter of fact approach to the baser bodily functions of life.

Set in 1950's Australia, in the outskirts of a small country town we follow the daily disappointments of the single parent family of Betty, past her prime and with the humdrum job of working in a nursing home. Her neighbour Harry tends his dairy cowherd day in day out and with much reference to the mechanics of the milking and the treatment of the cows for various diseases. It is Harry who takes it upon himself to educate Betty's fatherless son Michael in the ways of the world. Using his own experiences as reference he prepares notes for Michael. But how helpful can an elderly dairy farmer be to a young teenage boy?

In between the human family interactions we are introduced to the kookaburras that Harry watches through his binoculars. Their own family mechanics are followed and recorded, in an almost poetic way, the parents courtship, fledgling rearing and the launch of the young bird into the wider world of the farm territory.

It is an unusual book in it's continual reference to bodily functions and touching of parts in such an nonsexual manner and without a hint of sensuality. This aspect of the book is essential to the story; it is after all called 'Mateship'...'with Birds'. But despite this lack of sensuality it is however a tenderly written story. We feel for each of the characters in their isolation and in the sadness of their limited lives and also for the innocence.

 Carrie Tiffany has written a very unique tale here, with its roots in the Australian country towns of a bygone time. Her writing style and very individual approach sets this book aside from others and delivers a most rewarding and also thoughtful story to consider long after the last page is turned.

Mateship with Birds is published by Picador and was longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize.

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