Between the Covers
Mateship With Birds
Carrie Tiffany's eagerly anticipated second novel Mateship With Birds concerns the small Australian town of Cohuna huddling beneath a "condensed blue sky". It is 1953. Magazines are seducing their readers with images of new shiny things for neat clean-cut families. But not everybody fits the mould.
Harry, a lonely dairy farmer, spends his days stomping through mud and manure attending to his beloved "chorus line" of cows. In his downtime, Harry watches the many flocks of birds that populate his property. But this bucolic picture of rural daily rhythm also thrums with an undercurrent of tension, risk and desire.
With no family of his own, Harry focuses on the raucous and expertly ruthless kookaburra clan whose "primary address is a large redgum by the dairy". His wise yet acutely simple observations are noted down, spinning a thread of haiku-like poetry detailing the kookaburras' fare, "earwigs, weevils, spider - one leg only" and gentle meditations on their shared existence, "I farm the land, they farm the air."
But Harry's binoculars are also watching over his neighbour, Betty Reynolds, who has blown into town with two fatherless children in tow. Bursting with furtive passions and disappointments of her own, Betty feels "overstuffed". Catching her "blowzy" reflection in a shop window, Betty comes to the withering conclusion her permanent wave does not look like hair at all but "something that has been made out of hair that has stored at the back of the cupboard". Harry, however, has another view.
As he awkwardly takes a regular place at Betty's kitchen table, Harry begins to share his knowledge and love of birds with Betty's adolescent son, Michael. The tantalising promise of belonging and fulfilment hovers over these dislocated souls. But when Harry decides it is his duty to educate Michael on the facts of life, the budding relationship falters. Intentions are questioned. Assumptions are made.
An agricultural journalist and former park ranger, Tiffany knows how to draw us into the realities of life on the land with all its uncertainties, joys, contradictions and hardships.
Her debut novel Everyman's Rules of Scientific Living was published in 2005. Shortlisted for major international prizes, it took out the Dobbie prize. Here, she hones her trademark quiet humour and effortless integration of quirky "texts". While Mateship With Birds travels to some confronting places, its layered narrative is satisfyingly balanced with resilience and hope.
And it is worth the wait.