Little shocks: Mateship with Birds

Last year,  I was a bit horrified when I realised how little Australian literature I had read. Of all the many, many books I’d read since I could, only a handful of them had been by Australian authors. As such, part of my mission to ‘read differently’ came to encompass the deliberate selection of Australian work. As a result, I’ve discovered some incredible pieces by Sonya Hartnett, Gillian Mears and Tim Winton, to name just a few.

My most recent discovery has been Carrie Tiffany, and her new novel Mateship with Birds (Pan Macmillan):

“On the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, a lonely farmer trains his binoculars on a family of kookaburras that roost in a tree near his house. Harry observes the kookaburras through a year of feast, famine, birth, death, war, romance and song. As Harry watches the birds, his next door neighbour has her own set of binoculars trained on him. Ardent, hard-working Betty has escaped to the country with her two fatherless children. Betty is pleased that her son, Michael, wants to spend time with the gentle farmer next door. But when Harry decides to teach Michael about the opposite sex, perilous boundaries are crossed.

Mateship with Birds is a novel about young lust and mature love. It is a hymn to the rhythm of country life – to vicious birds, virginal cows, adored dogs and ill-used sheep. On one small farm in a vast, ancient landscape, a collection of misfits question the nature of what a family can be.”

Part field notes, part journal and part narrative, this fascinating novel is one of the most interesting reads I’ve had so far this year.

Carrie’s writing style is unique, and incredibly readable. It is clipped, to the point and interestingly, written in the present tense. These characteristics give the story an immediacy and an intimacy. On more than one occasion I was reminded of field observations, of animal husbandry or fittingly, of bird-watching notes such as those put on paper by Harry himself.

There is the most intense sense of watching, of both being watched and of observing others. At all times, I felt that I was privy to the inner lives of these fascinating characters. It took no time at all until I had started to move with the very distinct rhythm of this narrative, and to smile, wonder and cringe along with it’s protagonists:

“Shopping after work, Betty falls in the rain. Her heels slide out from under her on the wet timbers of the verandah in front of Oestler’s Fruit and Veg. She goes down heavy, face first; puts her tooth through her lip, bleeds a lot of orange sticky blood over her uniform…”

The story is primarily about Betty, her children Michael and Little Hazel, and their quiet neighbour Harry. These are the characters you want to know, they are endearing and each have compelling stories to tell. Then there are the secondary characters, such as Harry’s ex-wife and the despicable Mue. We’re given little information about these associate figures, but they undoubtably have a dark and severe effect on the protagonists of the story. It is through Mue that most of the deepest shocks of this story are delivered.

It is beautifully Australian, rural and reminiscent. The importance of the everyday, and of our immersion in and connection with nature are key themes.

Although there is a definite quietness about this story, it is at the same time quite shocking. This novel is filled with lust, little shocks of sex that jump out at you and then pass as quickly as they arrived. Often, they’re recollections of experiences of sexual function, curiosity, deviation, rather than the act itself. The sex-scenes that are included (there are a couple) are gritty, and real, and breath-taking.

I was extremely lucky to be able to have a chat with Carrie Tiffany just after I’d read her book, and from our chat, I gained a sense for how she approached the writing of this novel…


Can you tell me a little about the book, in your own words?
That’s actually a pretty tricky question…I don’t really want to do a summary of the plot, because I don’t think the plot is really that important for me as a writer. To me, it’s more that the book is really about the nature of families, about the bonds that link people together and in this case, that family extends to a kind of odd group of people in the little township of Cohuna on the Murray River. It also extends to include families of birds, families of cows, or evan the relationship that a farmer might have with his dog – all of these kinds of relationships are interesting to me.

I noticed a real link between humans and nature, Harry observes his birds the same way as Betty observes her children. Is this deliberate? 
Yes. I work an agricultural, environmental science kind of area, and I do a lot of work in land care, but working on bureaucratic reports where I come up against this language that we use to describe our environment, it’s very scientific, and it really worries me because I think it fails the environment in some ways. I think there’s something ultimately very subjective about human beings in the landscape and our response to the landscape, and I don’t think there is any other way to come at it apart from from your feeling. To try and deny them and stand behind scientific method, really concerns me because I think that the emotional, instinctual response is really important – I don’t want to see that go. I think increasingly it does seem to be that we don’t use the terms that we used to and that’s one of the reasons that I set the book in the Fiftys. I’d been reading a lot of these nature writers, like Alex Chisholm who wrote the first Mateship with Birds and was really interested in the type of language they used in that time. They’d unashamedly talk about a bird as having gender; “She’s a pretty little Honey-eater” and they’d talk about it in a very subjective way, a very romantic way. It seemed to me that that was something that added to the relationship between people and nature, rather than diminished it.

One of the things that I absolutely loved about the book was the bird-watching theme. You mention ‘What Bird is That’ by Neville Cayley as part of the story – a book which I used to read for hours with my Pop. Is bird-watching something that you’ve always been interested in, or is it something that you researched particularly for this book?
Well I do have a family of Kookaburras that live out the back of my house and I do listen to them, and observe them with binoculars and I take down notes about what was happening in the family, but I also did a lot of research. I read these old editions of this wonderful publication that Birds Australia put out. It was called ‘The Emu’ and in fact Alex Chisholm was one of its the editors. People used to just write in with some of their observations and stories, so a lot of the observations and stories of what’s happening to the Kookaburras in Mateship with Birds are taken from these old editions of the ‘The Emu’. They’re not magical or fantastical, they’re grounded in reality, and I this is really important to me, I like that it’s got a factual basis.

I don’t have a lot of knowledge, I’m a bit of a bird-watcher but more in a “Wow, isn’t that magnificent” sort of way rather than a really technical kind of way.

You have an interesting history, you’re pretty locationally and vocationally diverse… how has this informed the story, if at all?
Well, I wasn’t actually born in Australia, I was born in the UK and I moved to Perth with my parents when I was about six. I do think that there is something very important about coming to a new country and gosh, you couldn’t come to somewhere more different than from the UK to Perth. As a child, you’re quite young and impressionable and I think was always trying to pair what I was seeing with somewhere else, and to try and make sense of it, to try and describe it. When I was younger, I remember when we first got here, being astounded by how much space there was compared to in England. We lived on this little housing estate and we had this little sand block and there was a nature strip out the front. I was really astounded by this straggly nature strip, that this new country had so much space in it that everyone had a nature strip.

As a child, I would stand on this nature strip and look up and down the street, and I developed this fanciful notion that these strips probably led somewhere. That if you followed them, they’d take you to the bush. I always had this interest in going to the bush and in fact in my early twenties I worked as a park ranger. I still maintain that interest in the bush through what I do now.

The story itself if very interestingly constructed. It’s pacing, rhythm is strong and seemingly deliberate. It uses short, clipped sentences and the use of present tense (and occassionally future tense) is very effective. Was this deliberate, or did the novel just kind of evolve this way?
That’s a really difficult question – some of those kinds of decisions are quite subconscious, although I’m sure there are some stylistic similarities between the sentences in this book and the sentences in my first book, and perhaps also in some short stories and things that I’ve had published.  I really like a ‘clean’ sentence and in some ways I’m not a big fan of adjectives and adverbs, I like strong, plan language. I suppose I’m influenced very much by the sorts of things that I read as well, so I’m aiming for a kind of purity, in a sentence that feels kind of true yet is simple. I am a very slow writer, and I do spend an enormous amount of time on a sentence. They might read like I wrote them very fast, like I kind of threw them off, I don’t know…but that’s really not the case. A lot of time, work and efforts goes into making them so simple.

One of the aims of my writing is really to kind of parsimony with language, so that you tell the story as simply as possible whilst leaving a lot of room in there for the reader. That’s what I like to read – I like reading when there’s a lot of space for me to make up my own mind about what is happening. I like the work to hint at something, but not tell me everything – so I think that’s what I am trying to do. I like there to be a lot of space for people to interpret the book in many different sorts of ways because I think that that is one of the amazing things about reading. It’s such a creative thing to do.

I was fascinated by the little ‘shocks’ of lust, passing comments on urges and sex, but then it’s gone almost as soon as it’s there. Many writers might be tempted to give more detail around the narrative to this, rather than this disciplined, punchy approach. Was this deliberate?
I’m not really sure, it’s not really something I’ve thought about, although I do think that there is something very strange about us, about people’s sexuality in that it’s this thing that we do with our bodies and our minds that’s quite confronting and confounding really, particularly when you think about the rest of our lives which are really quite rational. But this sexual desire, it seems almost in some ways to be a bit aside from language, and it’s very difficult to talk about. I didn’t want overly romanticised sex, whether it’s happening in the animal world or the human world. I wanted to show the similarities between sex in those two worlds and show the animal that’s in human sexuality. I also think the sexualisation in the world is kind of startling at the moment and to me that’s not really about sex, it’s about being sold something. It’s about being sold perfect bodies and people feeling like they should have a lot of sex, a kind of sexual aggression. That sort of stuff is really confounding to me, so I wanted to show something that to me felt truer – something of the sexual lives that these people in this very small community were leading in the 1950s.

How do you find people react to this kind of more explicit imagery?
I remember with the first book The Everyman’s Rules to Scientific Living, there was this terrible newspaper headline in The Australian ‘Lust in the Malley Dust’ I was very surprised, I really didn’t think there was that much sex in that book, and it wasn’t at all gratuitous. Although I don’t think about it as I’m writing, desire is clearly is a big narrative driver in this new book and to me that just seems right. I think in real life, desire is a big narrative drive for all of us, so it’s natural that it’s something that’d I’d write about.

I don’t want people to be offended or upset, but I’m also not going to be coy for the sake of being coy. I actually hate reading those books, when they’re fantastic books and then you get to the point where two characters kiss and then the curtains close and the next chapter starts the next day. I feel really ripped off reading that kind of story,  so I’m not going to do those things myself.

Lastly, you had a lot of success with your last novel “The Everyman’s Rules to Scientific Living”, what do you hope for with this new novel?
Really, the thing for me is the writing, the reason I do it is at the level where I’m actually sitting down and working on my sentences. That’s why I do it. The novel comes out into the world, and people read it and it can be quite lovely to engage on a one-on-one basis with readers and to hear what they think about the book. Quite often they have quite different interpretations or ideas, ideas that I hadn’t even thought of before… and that’s pretty fabulous, when you hear that it has this imaginary life of its own. All the other stuff is really a bit of a circus, it’s a bit of a lottery.

I just very simply hope that people will read it and will find something in it that touches them or makes them think.


Mateship with Birds certainly made me think, about new things, about these intriguing characters and about my own family. I’m hoping that some of you will join in and read the book as this month’s TBYL Book Club book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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