Not to beat about the bush – there’s a lot of sex in Carrie Tiffany’s novel and most of it not ornithological. I only mention it as the reviewer I commissioned to write about it when it came out in hardback emailed me to say that it was all too much for her. I was too busy to check it out but now that I’ve read the book I’m mystified. There is one aberrant incident but it hardly comes as a surprise and is treated with such gentle black humour as to be inoffensive. Well, to me, anyway, but you have been warned. Now let’s get on with the book
Set in a small Australian settlement in the 50s, Mateship with Birds is a tender portrayal of Harry, a dairy farmer who’s lived alone since his wife left him many years ago, fed up with their uneventful life. He lives next door to Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Everyone quietly gets on with their lives which are mostly mundane with the occasional event rippling through, much like many of our own. It opens with a list of Harry’s cows’ names. He’s firm but affectionate with them, imagining them to be a ‘troupe’ of stars on tour and he their manager. He has a timid little whippet to herd them, fully aware that many farmers would laugh at him for it. He’s a birdwatcher who records his observations in a dairy account book. Next door Betty brings up her children, quietly letting assumptions that her husband died in the war stand. She gets on with her job as an aide in an old people’s nursing home, performing the most menial tasks with loving care and attention. These two lonely middle aged people, quietly losing whatever physical charms they once possessed but still yearning for sexual love, are so affectionately portrayed that you find yourself desperate for someone to make the first move.
What marks this fine novel out is its richly vibrant language and acutely observed characterisation. Both Harry and Betty are kind, sensitive and thoughtful: Harry is concerned about Michael’s fledgling relationship with Dora and what they may be getting up to so he sets about Michael’s sexual education, sensitive to the potential for embarrassment; Betty knowing that an old man in her nursing home is lonely changes her clothes at lunch time and re-enters the home to visit him as his ‘wife’. Harry’s bird observations look like poetry in the narrow confines of his dairy ledger book, and become it when he uses words like ‘bandit-dandy’. Sunlight ‘shines ginger through [the cows’] ears’. Characters are quietly accepting of their fate. Even when Mues, Harry’s reprobate neighbour, lures Little Hazel into his shed with promises of a Shetland pony only to expose himself she merely reflects wryly that you never really get what you want: ‘Adults are part of [the] pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another’. All of these elements combine to make this novel a complete delight: funny, beautifully expressed and written with huge affection for ordinary unglamorous people which means most of us. The last line made me laugh out loud from sheer joy.