This review also appears on the Melbourne Review of Books
In 2005, debut author Carrie Tiffany wowed fans of historical fiction with her award-winning novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living. Set in 1934, an era of small-town Australia was brought grimly to life as narrator Jean Finnegan sought to bring science to the wheat fields of the land.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Carrie’s anticipated follow-up novel, Mateship with Birds, captures a revealing snapshot of 1950s rural Victoria in all its sexually repressed glory.
In the town of Cohuna near the banks of Gunbower Creek, we meet Betty Reynolds, the forty-five year old mother of Michael and Little Hazel. Betty doesn’t correct the local residents if they call her Mrs Reynolds and instead lets them believe that she must have moved to town after losing her husband. In reality, she’s never been married.
In a society that expected women to be housewives, Betty works as an aide at the local Home for the Aged and is unaware that everyone refers to her children as ‘Betty’s bastards’. She spends her spare time wistfully dreaming of being desired, despite her growing hatred of her body, which is aging before she’s had a chance to accept or enjoy it. She feeds these fantasies by visiting the senile men in her care during her lunch break and pretending to be their wives.
Equally undesired is Betty’s neighbour, Harry the dairy farmer, whose wife left him for the President of the Bird Observers Club several years before. Despite this, Harry continues to love his ornithological hobby and in particular enjoys observing a family of kookaburra living around his farm. They become the kin he doesn’t have as he writes poetry about their lives in a milk ledger and assigns them the positions of mother, father and children.
Silently encouraged by Betty, Harry awkwardly allows himself to take on the role of a male figurehead to Betty’s children and he teaches Michael about farming, fishing and rabbiting and visits the family for tea each evening. It is no surprise that Harry and Betty are acutely aware of one another. But within the constraints of the 1950s, their desire must find other outlets.
For Betty, this involves immersing herself in a vivid fantasy life where Harry is the star attraction. For Harry, things take a darker twist when he discovers teenage Michael with an open copy of the magazine Woman and Home and an enthusiastic appreciation of a female in a snugly fitting tennis dress. From this point onwards, Harry takes it upon himself to educate Michael about his burgeoning sexuality. And so commences a series of letters to the boy in which Harry recounts his own sexual experiences, thoughts and observations—these observations only serving to awaken his own feelings for Betty.
Mateship with Birds takes an unashamed look at desire in a time of moral purity and asks questions about where the energy of that desire goes when it remains repressed. A small side story about a disagreeable character called Mues gives us an all too unwelcome answer. Watching the various characters navigate within the social boundaries of this judgmental and restrictive time is both fascinating and unsettling. You have been warned.
Carrie’s beautifully written and darkly witty prose softens the edges of the harsh and shocking realities of the lives of these bewildered characters. While this is not a book for the fainthearted, it is most certainly one for those who want to learn about the lifestyles and behaviours of the inhabitants of 1950s Victoria. Historical rural romance at its finest.
RATING: 5 out of 5
Mateship with Birds ISBN: 9781742610764