Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reading Notes: Mateship with Birds

This review is a triple outcome for me - it forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge, my Stella Prize Challenge and my almost certainly unsuccessful attempt to read the Miles Franklin longlist before shortist announcement.

Carrie Tiffany's Mateship with Birds is a very illustrious book at the moment. Shortlisted for the Stella Prize, it has also found a place on the Miles Franklin longlist. (One other book has achieved this double feat - Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel). For me, it is the fifth of the 6 books on the Stella shortlist to be read (I'll shortly finish and review the last one, The Sunlit Zone) and third of the 10 books on the Miles Franklin longlist.

So I suppose the first question that I brought to this text was a fairly simple one -is the book as good as all that? Does it deserve to be on two prize lists at once? Is it a game changer in Australian literature?

My answers, now that I've read it, are: Probably; Probably; and No. It *is* a good book, no question - engaging and beautifully written and to me quite gentle (not a quality I was expecting from its blurb, which I feel does the book a disservice, hinting at darkness and twistedness that I just did not find in this story at all).

It has the rare (for me) distinction of being a book set exclusively in farming / small town Australia in the postwar period that isn't tired, overly reliant on "great brown land" cliches, or romanticised. I generally do not cotton to farming-life books and novels set in the postwar period to 1970s are without doubt the hardest to pull off, in my mind - perhaps because the aesthetic and voice is tremblingly close to our modernity, but not really of it.

The story is, plot-wise, extremely simple - farmer befriends single mother and her two children living next door, minor crises ensue, all is resolved in the final chapter. Within the constraints of this small plot,Tiffany manages to fully realise not just Harry (the farmer), Betty, her son Michael and her daughter Little Hazel, but also the natural world in which they live, and to make some fairly decent points about life, love, sex and growing up along the way.

One of the central themes - the one that's hyped in the publicity, which makes it sound salacious - is Harry's decision to share his wisdom about male sexuality with the teenage Michael. It would be possible to read this as threatening and vaguely wrong, but one of the book's greatest achievements is in allowing Harry to be quite explicit in what he says and writes without ever coming off as skeevy. The quasi-paternal relationship between the man and boy is sketched in few sentences and scenes, but somehow it's enough - combined with Harry's essential decency, which is underlined constantly - to make these communications seem poignant and a little sad. Harry, unlike the neighbouring farmer Mues, is never perceived as malignant or a threat, rather, in many ways, protective, kind and stumbling. His bird family diary, his care for his small dairy herd, his carefully doled out memories of happiness, illuminate him more clearly than any amount of interpersonal interaction could have.

Whether it's a *great* book ... I'm less sure on that count. Tiffany does really interesting things with her characters (Harry, in particular) and her linking theme of the kooaburra family, from the old bird watching book the title references, works extremely well as an elegant metaphor to tie the plot together. She does a lovely job writing a seemingly small story with large themes, but whether there are any earth-shatteringly new observations in it ... I'm reserving judgement on that.

Overall, should this book win the Stella? No - Sea Hearts and Like a House on Fire are definitely better books, and The Burial and Questions of Travel, in different ways, are both more innovative than this one. However, it is nonetheless a very good book, one I'd recommend, and shows yet again the incredible strength of the Stella list (and of Australian women's writing in general).

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