Many years back, when I was new to the bush, I was standing in the top paddock of a mixed grazing and cropping property backing onto to the Warrumbumble Mountains in north western New South Wales and waxing lyrical about the dramatic horizon all broken into vertical planes by weird ancient dry lava plugs.
The tart response from the farmer – an intimidatingly crusty and independent woman in her 70s – was sobering. “Good views don’t make a farm”, she said in her witheringly succinct crack of a voice.
I was reminded of that day over and over again while reading Carrie Tiffany’s luminous Mateship with Birds, which strips Australian rural life of pastiche and sentimentality, leaving us with something that is beautiful and raw with its own living, breathing energy.
Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Mateship with Birds is the kind of book that you just don’t want to end. I was left with a feeling of great sadness and loss – not because of the way the story finished, but because I was suddenly cast out of the world into which she transported me. I simply didn’t want to be cut adrift from the gentle dairy farmer, Harry, the purposeful single woman next door Betty, with her two children Michael, on the brink of sexual awakening, and Little Hazel the younger sister dealing with her own initiation into the world of nature.
Tiffany sets her novel in the sexually repressed 1950s of Victoria but her story has a universality about it that transcends time and place. It is a story about love, lust, loneliness, family, animals and the rhythms of nature. She writes with lucid clarity, bringing as much beauty to descriptions of the daily ministrations to lactating cows, to those of Harry’s observations of the viciousness of the birds that patrol the boundaries of his paddock, to the surprising and unexpected yearnings of the human heart. And let’s not forget that despite the strictures of society at the time, growing up in the country meant be surrounded by fecundity and a lot of rutting – the cycle of sex, birth, decay, death is simply an observable fact.
This is a particularly sensual novel, and in that respect, it fits very well into that bush setting. The reader feels the ooze of the soil under hoof, smells the diesel of the red Fergy in the shed, hears the plop of the milk in the pail. And when it comes to longings of a more human kind, Tiffany’s sparse and unsentimental style is both deft and poetic.
Tiffany must have done an enormous amount of research about dairying and bird life, and considering her age and background, has done an incredible job of rendering so palpable a life that she herself could never have experienced and yet lives on the memories of a great many people. She breathes air into this world with authenticity and sensitivity and I am certainly the richer for experiencing it through her imagination.
This is an exceptional novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.