Tag Archives: family

Quesadillas (2012) – Juan Pablo VILLALOBOS

I have a great deal of respect for indie publishers And Other Stories. I admire their philosophy towards the promotion and translation of world literature. Most of the time, though, their personal tastes and mine are at odds. I can now say, though, with great pleasure, that I have read an AOS book that I enjoyed immensely.

The second in a loose trilogy of Mexican ‘state of the nation’ novels, Quesadillas follows thei childhood of a young boy growing up in the slums on the outskirts of a big city. His life changes forever, though, when two things happen: a rich family buy the plot of land next door, and his younger twin siblings go missing in a supermarket riot.

There’s a lot to love here. What strikes one first upon entering is the clarity of voice Villalobos (and Rosalind Harvey, the translator) has created. The sardonic, sarcastic of a man looking back on his vaguely ridiculous childhood is perfectly capture in Orestes’ narration of several key episodes, from the first time the family meet their new rich Polish neighbours, to his own experiences artificially inseminating cows.

The situations in which Orestes finds himself are regularly ridiculous. The scene in which his younger siblings go missing is chaotic and rushed, and there is a sense of the uncontrollable when Villalobos turns his eye to the poor Mexican masses trying to deal with their daily lives. It sets off Orestes and his older brother, Aristotle, on a wild goose chase involving aliens, UFOs and crazy cults that eventually sees the disappearance of another two siblings.

At the heart of the comedy and insanity that shoots through the novel is the quite serious discussion Villalobos wants us to have about class and social mobility in contemporary Mexico, particularly about slum gentrification.

The titular foodstuff is, of course, a rather long extended metaphor for the economic state of the family. It’s a small thing, but it’s a reminder that, unlike so many novels grappling with the past, Villalobos is more concerned with looking at history from the bottom up. Though politicians are present (one particularly memorable scene sees our narrator meet a politician and have perhaps the most bizarre conversation in the entire work), for the most part, they remain external to the action. This is a story where the economic and political circumstances of the time are the background to the story of real people who are directly and indirectly affected by these macro changes.

Orestes’ family is desperately concerned with keeping up appearances, particularly with the arrival of the middle-class neighbours who build a house next door. Though there are only three in the family, their house is more massive than our narrator’s. Desperate to not look poor, Orestes’ family insist that they are middle-class, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

As everything around Orestes slowly unravels, the ending hurtles towards the insane. Somehow, though, Villalobos makes it work. There are hints of absurdism through most of the novel, but for the most part, they remain nothing more than hints. This quickly goes out the window in the final sequence, in which all hell breaks loose, and any attempts to classify this as social realism masquerading as satire go with it.

Quesadillas marks Juan Pablo Villalobos out as a talent to watch. I’ve not read his first novel, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for it. And if And Other Stories knows what’s good for them, they’ll keep him on their books as he hopefully grows into an important voice coming out of Central America.

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A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

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Death of a River Guide (1994) – Richard FLANAGAN

Aljaz Cosini is in something of a spot of bother. He is lying at the bottom of the Franklin River, trapped under a rock. He is dying. But something strange is happening. Instead of blacking out, he finds himself having visions he cannot control. As the history of his ancestors flashes before his eyes, he is forced to examine his own life.

Those of us on the mainland have a tendency to mock Tasmania, I think, for a whole variety of reasons. But there is something to be said for the strength of a Tasmanian identity over an Australian identity, and Flanagan does his darndest in this novel to create a Tasmanian literature, removed from mainstream Australian literature.

There are, of course, similarities to what we might term traditional tropes of Australian literature: a violent colonial history; an uneasy relationship between white and non-white Australians; and a contemporary society struggling to come to terms with these things. But Flanagan reappropriates these into a uniquely Tasmanian context, tracking them through almost the entire history of the tiny island, as well as through the history of the people throughout history who have emigrated to the land to find a new life.

It’s startling (and, quite frankly, a little depressing) to realise that Death of a River Guide is Flanagan’s first novel. Not only is he in complete command of the language—in his descriptions of Aljaz’s interiority as well as his bountiful descriptions of the Franklin River and its surroundings—but structurally, too, the novel is almost perfect. The series of seemingly random flashbacks through Tasmanian history experienced by Aljaz as he lays dying slowly shimmer into order. As the history of Tasmania becomes the history of his ancestors, so too do the dark secrets of Tasmanian history become the dark secrets of Aljaz’s family. Things Tasmania has tried to hide are things hidden from Aljaz as a child, but like all family secrets, they eventually come out.

Again and again, Flanagan connects Aljaz’s feeling of isolation to his time away from the Tasmanian landscape. It is only when Aljaz comes home, to where he belongs, that he is able to feel calm once again, and come to terms with what has happened to him. In fact, it is not until the very end of the novel when Aljaz is able to fully accept his life, mistakes and all. It takes his coming to a point just moments before death at the hands of the natural environment to allow himself forgiveness. Aljaz’s existential epiphany comes as he is submersed in a uniquely Tasmanian river. It’s a powerful image, and one that hijacks tradition and reappropriates it into an Antipodean context.

I don’t think Richard Flanagan wants us all to almost drown in a freezing river on the west coast of Tasmania, but he certainly wants us to think more closely about the relationships between individuality, family, nature and history. Death of a River Guide deals deftly with the complexity of these relationships, and proves that Richard Flanagan is one of the best contemporary Australian novelists.

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Anatomy of a Night (2012) – Anna KIM

I’m a big believer in translating fiction, for a variety of very boring reasons. I’m always happy, then, when a new publisher pops up to specialise in translated fiction. And while Frisch & Co. do not yet have any Asian fiction on their list, they do have an impressive line-up of writers from European languages. One of these is Anna Kim, a South Korean-born Austrian writer, who steadfastly refuses to write about her roots, a decision I applaud heartily.

Each year in Amarâq, a town in Greenland, there is one night in which a series of suicides takes place. They are not planned or discussed beforehand—they simply happen—and no family in the town is left untouched. Anatomy of a Night takes us on a guided tour of Amarâq, and asks us to question why this horrific event keeps happening.

There can be no question as to who the main character of this novel is. Amarâq is fictional town in which Kim sets her novel, and it is Amarâq that gives us the most material to examine. It is bleak, it is depressing, and there are almost no redeeming features. Kim populates the city with grey people—not in a literal sense, of course, but in their unrelentingly bleak outlook on life, and their resignation to a life that will never come to anything more than being able to eke out a living amongst the detritus of other people around them.

Amarâq is not just the city; the surrounding landscape also becomes a part of this setting that takes people in and spits them out. Though some people venture out of the ramshackle collection of building that forms the settlement, they are invariably attacked or eaten by a polar bear, and made to return.

I’m not sure if this comes off as slightly off, but it’s interesting and fascinating to see the collision between traditional Greenlandic culture and contemporary life, particularly when it comes to suicide and death. Each of the suicides seems somehow inevitable. Some people with Inuit heritage see their lives as continuing after death, and the allure of a place where material poverty becomes immaterial, a place where they can be reunited with their loved ones, is more tempting than the

Though Kim never explicitly states it, much of the troubled state of Amarâq can be traced back to the original sin: the colonisation of Greenland by the Danish. Wilfully ignored by the central government. It’s not a new story, but Kim’s evocation of a town gone to the dogs because of policies that have been designed with prejudice in mind is careful and deliberate.

All of this is wrapped up in a writing style that marks Kim out as unique among a chorus of voices writing about the postcolonial context. Cormac McCarthy would be proud to see another write take up with gusto the follow-on sentence: Kim’s words flow across the page, never-ending, in their glorious descriptions of place and character. Full marks to her translator, Bradley Schmidt, who had managed to wrangle the German into gorgeous English.

Anatomy of a Night is not an easy read. It is complex, and demands both patience and intelligence from its reader. But if you are willing to take the plunge, to dedicate some time to it, you will be rewarded tenfold. Beautiful and horrific in equal measures, this novel marks Anna Kim out as a talented writer, and Bradley Schmidt as a talented translator. It is a novel I look forward to revisiting in the future.

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The Spinning Heart (2012) – Dónal RYAN

The book I’m most looking forward to reading on the Man Booker longlist this year, The Luminaries, still hasn’t been released in Australia, so I’m biding my time reading other, smaller entries on the list. Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is a debut novel, and one of three Irish authors to be longlisted. But while Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann deal with history in their entries, Ryan’s novel is about contemporary Ireland, about the fallout from the European Financial Crisis.

A new housing development in Ireland has collapsed in the wake of the European Financial Crisis, and no one is safe from the effects. Builders, property developers and young mothers have all found themselves poorer because of the forces of globalisation, and they are quickly discovering that life in the new paradigm takes some getting used to.

My engagement with Irish fiction and literature is limited, to say the least, but I couldn’t help but feel that Ryan seemed to be pulling out all the clichés people might usually associate with it. The novel’s tone is unrepentantly bleak, and no one seems satisfied with their lot in life. To be fair, almost every character’s life is far from ideal—and I’m not advocating some kind of false hope—but this is just another long line of Irish novels that feeds into the idea of depressing Irish literature (see also, The Gathering and The Dead School). We can be thankful the characters in The Spinning Heart made it through their journeys without any hint of sexual assault.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Kristina Carlson’s short novel, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, and the lack of clarity that work had because of its fractured narrative structure. In many ways, The Spinning Heart suffers from the same structural problem. In his attempt to highlight just how many have been adversely affected by the collapse of the housing market in Ireland, Ryan fails to make his readers care about anyone in particular. By dehumanising the individuals in his tale, he highlights the fact that this is a national problem, a conundrum that has affected everyone in Ireland, no matter what they do or who they are.

What strikes me as most interesting in this novel, though, is the construction of a masculine identity in contemporary Ireland, particularly in younger generations. Left without jobs to go to , many men who might otherwise have found employment in the construction and physical labour industries are left to either scrounge for the few positions that still exist, or move to Australia. (As a Sydneysider, I can vouch that the latter option is based on real life.) No longer able to provide for their families, they spend their days in bars, chasing women, or trying to woo back women they’ve hurt in the past.

The picture of Ireland Ryan paints in The Spinning Heart is not a pretty one. People have been reduced to nothing but ciphers in a society where no one has answers to the problems. They have been promised all the riches of capitalism, and those promises have come crashing down faster than anyone could have imagined. And while Ireland’s national psyche is impeccably evoked, this occurs at the expense of relatable, interesting characters.

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The Blind Man’s Garden (2013) – Nadeem ASLAM

My pick for last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, was a beautiful evocation of a less-than-well-travelled part of the world—the dangerous mountains on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Reading that opened my eyes to a part of the world about which I know nothing. I was excited, then, to see that Nadeen Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden was set in the same place.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, two Pakistani brothers walk across the border into Afghanistan. They are not there to take up arms, but to help the wounded civilians caught up in the American invasion.

It tries to reach similar heights to one ones Khan’s achieves, but never manages to provide the reader with an emotional centre into which we can fully immerse ourselves. The story itself should be touching—it is the story of mistaken identity in a world torn apart by sectarian violence, where protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears. It is not limited to American misunderstanding of who is a terrorist and who isn’t—the Taliban are on the warpath, and anyone considered to be an American sympathiser is not safe.

Ostensibly the biggest problem with the novel is the way in which it is structured. In the first section, we are introduced to a family—the father, Rohan, whose wife’s death has forced him to question his beliefs in God; his biological son, and his adopted son. After the attack on New York on 9 September 2001, the two brothers decide to go to Afghanistan to help the sick and the injured.

So we spend almost a quarter of the book getting to know these two characters, only for at least one of them to be torn away from us. Why should we, as readers, continue to invest our emotion and thoughts into a novel that is willing to kill off a character it has set up as a protagonist so early?

The rest of the novel deals with the repercussions of this death. This, in itself, is not a bad choice, but I am yet to understand why Aslam waited this long to get to the heart of the narrative. Many of the reactions to his death are touching, and recounted deftly by Aslam, whose control of the English language is exquisite.

Most of my problems with the novel could easily be solved in one of two ways. The first is to simply eliminate the first section, and let the reader deal only with the fallout of an undeserved death on a grieving family. The other option is simply to rearrange the chapters slightly so Jeo’s story is told in flashback, slowly allowing us to understand who he was to those who remain.

Form and function are always bound tightly. The function of Aslam’s novel is to highlight to us the grey nature of right and wrong in a world where violence begets violence. It’s an admirable theme, and one that we would all do well to consider more often, particularly in the case of religious extremism. But his choice of form lets him down, and the meat of the novel doesn’t start until well after it should have. It is this that remains the fatal flaw for The Blind Man’s Garden.

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Floundering (2011) – Romy ASH

The Miles Franklin Award is being announced this week, and the last book I have to read on the shortlist is Romy Ash’s Floundering. It’s also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, was longlisted for the Stella Prize, and was just yesterday shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, so clearly some judges around the world are quite liking it.

As Lisa mentioned in her review of the novel, Floundering is the latest in a long line of Australian novels that deal with depressing stories about abandoned children going on their own journey into the wilderness—see, for example, Favel Parrett’s heartbreaking Past the Shallows, and Patrick Holland’s depressing The Mark Smokes Boys. I loved both of those books, so I went into Floundering read to be amazed, and to need a box of tissues at the end.

Whisked away from the comfort of their grandparents’ house, Tom and Jordy find themselves on a road trip to the coast with their mother—the mother they last saw a year ago when she dropped them off without so much as a goodbye.

In many ways, Floundering acts as the mirror image of Past the Shallows. While Parrett focuses on the absence of a mother, Ash explores what it is like to have a mother, but one that is wholly unsuited to the job. Make no mistake, Loretta seems to (mostly) care for her two sons, but for whatever reason—wisely left unsaid by Ash—she cannot make the connection between emotional caring and actual parenting. Too caught up in her own issues, she cannot see what she is doing to slowly destroy the lives of her sons.

I’ve made clear before my feelings about child narrators, but fortunately, Tom never seems annoying, whiny or precocious. He reacts to the world around him in a depressing realistic way: his inability to understand what is going on around him, particularly when it comes to his mother, is palpable. In the first part in particular, his innocent willingness to believe his mother is back for good hits you right in the gut.

Sadly, the second half of the novel is not quite as good as the first. Loretta once again runs out on her sons, leaving them to their own devices in a rundown caravan park. Though they wander aimlessly through other families’ Christmas and New Year celebrations, they survive off the few cans of cold baked beans and the slowly emptying container of fresh water. In an attempt to find their mother, they hitch a ride with the dodgy man.

Unlike Parrett or Holland, Ash doesn’t feel the need to crush her readers with an ending that is horrendously bleak, though she would easily be forgiven had she chosen to. Turning convention in its head, Tom and Jordy reach out to find help. It’s a subtle reversal, but it’s nice not to need counselling after finishing a novel of this kind.

Floundering close to being perfect. Though the genre Ash works in is hardly new or revolutionary, the first half hits all the right notes, and elicits a deep, emotional response. Though the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise, Floundering marks Romy Ash out as a writer to watch.

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Pow! (2003) – MO Yan

Mo Yan’s winning of the Nobel Prize probably couldn’t have come at a better time for Seagull Books, who released this Mo novel several weeks after the award was announced. This was good for them for a variety of reasons, I imagine, not least because they are a university press, so they were always going to have trouble competing in terms of marketing and promotion. That, (and I say this as a recovering bookseller), and the fact that this novel would be super difficult to hand-sell.

The first, most blindingly obvious thing, about this novel is the meat. There is so much talk about meat, about eating meat, about cooking meat, about consuming meat, it can get quite overwhelming at times. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no vegetarian—but Mo really hammers home this obsession with meat that has taken over Slaughterhouse Village and Luo Xiaotong.

Obviously we can’t take the novel at face value. The whole concept is so ridiculous, we have to look further, dig deeper in the symbolism behind the magical realism at work here. Fortunately, it is not that hard to make the leap Mo wants us to make. The meat, and the obsession behind it, can be seen as a symbol of modern, developing China, and the desire for more wealth and more material gains. It is because of the meat, and the meat industry that has sprung up in Slaughterhouse Village, that people are becoming rich. And, of course, with people being the way they are, as soon as they get some meat, they want more and more and more.

At the centre of this obsession lies Luo Xiaotong, a young boy whose own obsession with eating meat leads him to great fame and wealth. Comparisons have been made to Gunter Grass’ absurdist masterpiece The Tin Drum. The comparisons are apt. Despite only being 12 years old, Xiaotong somehow manages to be given control of the entire meat packing plant, because he is able to consume vast quantities of meat (his skills are tested in several meat eating competitions with grown men)

Much of the horrific novel is horrific, not necessarily in a visceral sense, but in a human sense. Tagged on to this satirical view of development in China is the story of Luo Xiaotong’s family, and the fractious relationship between his mother, his father and his younger half-sister. In many places, it is quite touching, and Mo really goes to town on those fathers that leave young families simply for the sake of their own happiness.

Not that there aren’t scenes that won’t make your stomach turn. One in particular left me feeling unwell: the graphic description of the way in which the new meat-packaging plant, built to accommodate larger demand for exotic meat, pumps water not into dead meat, but into live animals, so it can be said they are not filling their meat with water to trick customers. Of course, the flip side

You’ll note I’ve avoided mentioning the elephant in the room that seems to come saddled with every Mo Yan review: that, because he is a member of the CCP, he can’t possibly be a good writer. I don’t buy that, so I’m moving swiftly on. Dylan Suher has an interesting article about it published in Asymptote here.

There is no escaping the fact that Pow! is bizarre. It is big, bold, and often confusing. But it is quite unlike any other Chinese fiction I’ve ever read. He might not be writing the biting social commentary we have all come to expect from contemporary Chinese literature, but Mo Yan has a gift that is undeniable.

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The Gathering (2007) – Anne ENRIGHT

The recent debate over the Booker Prize’s perceived shift away from the literary and towards the ‘readable’ overlooks a variety of important facts. The first, of course, is that one judge, in an off-hand comment, suggested that there is no point awarding a novel that no one will read—a comment that, taken at face value, seems to be eminently true.

The other important fact is that many of the recent winners have been big, complicated novels dealing with big, complicated ideas. Enright’s The Gathering is no exception.

The eponymous gathering is that of a large Irish Catholic family. Liam, the younger brother of our narrator Veronica, has died of an alcoholic overdose, and the family has come to mourn. As the family struggle to come to terms with this death, Veronica finds herself attempting to piece together just why Liam might have taken his own life.

It’s hard not to describe The Gathering without it sounding like a litany of Irish literature clichés: Catholicism, families, alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse and depression all get a good workout. But Enright takes those themes and turns them on their head with the inclusion of a rather interesting take on memory and narration. It’s also to Enright’s credit that, despite the horrific and depressing nature of this tale, I didn’t want to top myself by the end.

There are two themes at the heart of this novel: family, and memory. As Veronica tries desperately to understand how and why Liam’s life came to suicide, she begins to remember her childhood, growing up with her many brothers and sisters. She also tries to piece together how she became so unhappily married—she has been unable to sleep with her husband (both metaphorically and literally) since Liam died. All of a sudden, she cannot quite believe how her life came to be nothing more than a mother and wife, driving a fancy car, married to a man who seems to spend all his time in the office, away from his wife and two daughters.

In an even greater feat of memory, Veronica imagines/remembers her mother and her grandmother’s lives, too. The recurring theme in all three lives is the way in which women seem to been driven mad by the responsibilities placed on them by simply having a family. As though these tales are handed down from woman to woman, Veronica finds herself reliving the pains of her grandmother’s lost love, of her mother’s miscarriages. Each and every woman seems to find herself battered and bruised simply by having to adhere to the conventions required of the women of their time.

Veronica admits her own failings as a storyteller/narrator about halfway through the novel. She knows there is something that probably caused Liam’s unhappiness, but has been unwilling to remember it. Perhaps because she feels guilty, or perhaps not, but she has chosen to forget that Liam was sexually assaulted by an uncle when they were children. Though it is not spelt out, it is heavily implied that this incident led to Liam’s hedonistic life of drinking and debauchery. The implicit judgement—that sexual abuse is not a one-off case of assault—is horrific, and should give us all cause to think.

The two warring elements of this novel—the investigation of the twentieth-century Irish family, and the construction of a story from imperfect human memory—come together perfectly, highlighting Enright’s gifts as both storyteller and examiner of the human condition. For anyone sceptical of the Booker’s ability to find classics, try The Gathering.

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Mateship With Birds (2012) – Carrie TIFFANY

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.

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