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Mateship With Birds Hardcover – 21 June 2012
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About the Author
- Publisher : Picador (21 June 2012)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 224 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1447219864
- ISBN-13 : 978-1447219866
- Dimensions : 14.2 x 2.1 x 22.3 cm
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from Australia
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The content of the novel is adult. The clue is in the title: mateship. It's a book about sex. Very overt, graphic and sometimes uncomfortable depictions of sex. Of course, there is a subtlety at play: mateship is also the concept that held together the fabric of Australian society. Hence, we also see how a community sticks together against strange new things.
Then there's the other half of the title: with birds. The novel has a lot of birds in it. It's a treasure trove for an Australian ornithologist: there are a family of cookaburras; magpies swooping; sulphur crested cockatoos; crimson rosellas and more. Even chapters are divided by a magpie motif. But birds don't always have feathers...
At the heart of the story, there are three neighbours: Harry, a divorced farmer; Trevor Mues, an unmarried farmer; and Betty, who arrived shortly after the war with her children Michael and Little Hazel. All of them are bound by their loneliness and the repetition of daily life - milking the cows; shearing the sheep; delivering to market. It's a life that allows much time for thought but little opportunity to see other worlds.
The study of nature does give opportunities to see parallels between the lives of the birds and the lives of the people: the desire to form families, feather nests, and reproduce. We see how people imagine themselves to be superior with the complexities of their relationships and their supposed mastery over their sexual instincts. Yet scratch the surface and the people are not as great as all that. And just like the birds, there's a feeling of ephemerality - that once an event or a person is no longer remembered, it probably never have happened. The collective memory goes as far back as parents and no more.
The writing is sublime. The story is told in a lucid style and at a gentle pace. The imagery is stunning and colourful; the style mixes up straight prose, diaries, blank verse and correspondence - but without feeling gimmicky. The narrative is mostly in the present tense that gives a real sense of immediacy. There is also a good balance in the narrative between people who are likeable and a creeping sense of menace. It is handled well.
It would have been easy to produce a bucolic poverty novel but Carrie Tiffany resists this temptation. Instead, we have state of the art milking machines; travel into Echuca and Swan Hill; ancestors who commuted by train into Melbourne; cars and birdwatching. Nature is ever present, but mostly because the characters (especially Harry and Little Hazel) enjoy watching it. For the most part, the novel feels timeless and universal. It even feels fresh. Again, breaking with the tradition for period novels to be long, Mateship With Birds is very short. It leaves the reader wanting more which is always a good sign.
So overall, this novel is a masterpiece. It is also very sexual. If that is likely to upset you then try reading something else. Black Beauty, perhaps.
`Time, in Harry's understanding is measured in the body. It has something to do with the lungs and the taking in and expelling of air.'
Much of this novel is about records: Harry's bird watching diary; Betty's record of her children's illnesses; Hazel's nature diary and Harry's letters to Michael. Harry, the pragmatic farmer, is poetic. Hazel is observant and matter of fact, while Michael is walking the difficult path of adolescence. Betty would like more from life, but isn't quite sure how to proceed.
In this novel, the natural world is both character and backdrop. Beauty and routine, the mundane and the tragic are all part of life experienced by Betty and Harry. Michael is trying to make sense of his own place in a world which always looks different when adolescence kicks in and Hazel is both observant and resilient. The natural world applies to humans as well as to animals and birds. Well of course it does, but it isn't always as clearly integrated as it is here.
`What is the fixative that causes one memory to congeal and set, while others dissolve?'
I enjoyed this novel. It is quietly different and beautifully written. It was the winner of the Stella Prize for 2013.
Top reviews from other countries
If the story had concentrated more on the isolation of the Australian bush and the harshness of life, or had it been more informative about kookaburras, magpies etc., then it could have made a good read. For me it is just a vehicle for slipping in sexual predilections and perversions. Both Harry and Betty have their own sexual persuasions, as do other characters including care home residents, and a particularly odious neighbour as a sadistic pervert.
‘For me ‘Mateship with Birds’ is a shameful and sordid gathering together of salacious material. It is degrading – it is horrible – and it is hardly worthy of even a single star rating. Sorry!
Some aspects of the sexual descriptions were in a letter to a young teen from an older neighbour to give him guidance as he felt his mother probably would not be giving him advice!!
It was an interesting book and well written but not one I would read again or necessarily recommend to anyone as the content just was not to my taste.
Carrie Tiffany's 1950s' dairy farmer, Harry, himself applies Alec Chisholm's principles of "mateship" in his own relationships with the bird-life that shares his farmlands -- most particularly with a resident family of Kookaburras -- meticulously documenting their lives, and coming to know them as characters in their own right. This theme is but a backdrop, though, to the true subject of the book, which has much more to do with human relationships -- and the baser, more animal drive to mate, upon which so many of those relationships are fundamentally based. Harry's own anecdotal field-notes on the sexual appurtenances and predilections of women, jotted down meticulously and in faux-scholarly fashion for his neighbour's teenage son (intended as part of the boy's sex education, offered in a self-appointed role as surrogate father) provide a somewhat ironic parallel to Chisholm's original texts, displaying something of the same charming naiveté and dogged indefatigability.
For all the book's clevernesses, and the detail and accuracy of its observations of people, though, I found Carrie Tiffany's novel ultimately unsatisfying owing to its general lack of cohesive structure or direction, coupled with an emptiness in the characterisation that left me feeling very little indeed for any of the souls within it. And a suspicion too that the title would have been more accurate in the case of the novel, had it contained a comma after the first word.
Worth a look; just don't expect too much.