The inaugural Stella Prize was announced last week. Conveniently, because Mateship With Birds was longlisted for both the Stella and the Miles Franklin, I thought I should probably read it and see what all the fuss as all about. Looking through the archives of this place, it would appear that I have in fact read Carrie Tiffany’s first book, Everyday Rules for Scientific Living, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.
Harry lives next-door to Betty. Betty has two children who, in many ways, see Harry as their surrogate father. Underneath this arrangement, though, is the desire Harry has for Betty, and the desire Betty has for Harry. As time passes, the question of whether they will act on their feelings
The hilariously Australian pun in the title—for those across the seas, ‘bird’ is a very retro, slightly derogatory term for women—highlights the main theme of the novel: the relationship between men and women.
The most obvious, of course, is the relationship between Harry and Betty who, despite living next-door to each other for many years, and despite the fact that both seem to be attracted to the other, they never act on it in anything more than awkward social fumblings. The reasons for this are never explicitly stated, though Tiffany suggests that perhaps it is because of the historical context—Betty has moved to this town because her past as an unmarried woman with two children has proved to be problematic for her family in the past.
Because Harry feels he never had the chance to learn about women, Harry decides to educate Betty’s teenage son, Michael, in the ways of women. The two have already formed a close bond over bird watching, and in many ways, as the only adult male in proximity, Harry acts as a surrogate father to Michael. But like any man, particularly one who actually has little real-world experience with wooing and loving real women, Harry’s advice is tinged with his own past mistakes. Unable to draw on any experiences of his own, the advice given to Michael is littered with well-meaning but ultimately incorrect information. Who knows, perhaps this is Tiffany’s own little dig at the way men talk about sex to the next generation.
At the end of each scene/chapter/section, Tiffany gives us part of a poem about kookaburras, penned by Harry himself. Structurally, it’s really nice—the trials and the tribulations of the kookaburra family are contrasted with Betty’s family to good effect—but it still frustrated me. I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of poetry in novels, so I found myself zoning out. I know, I know. I’m a terrible person.
It’s easy to fill the voids that Tiffany creates in Mateship With Birds, to fill in the gaps, both thematically and plot-wise, that stretch out between the glimpses of life afforded us on the pages. Questions of love obviously linger above everything that happens—Harry’s unspoken, unacted feelings towards Betty, for example—and in some ways, this is to the detriment of the novel. There’s a lot to be said for allowing the reader to read meaning into a text, but when there is so much blank space on your canvas, it begins to look more unfinished than purposefully unanswered.
I don’t usually say this, but I would have loved for Tiffany to go into more detail, broadening her scope. In just over 200 pages, we cover quite a lot of time, leaving one with the distinct impression of fleetingness that doesn’t quite satisfy. There is no doubt that Mateship With Birds is well written, but it lacks that killer punch that makes good writing great.
And I still think The Burial should have won.