‘Mateship with Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany – The Monthly Book

August 2013

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview. She hosts a live online conversation with readers at the end of the month.


Carrie Tiffany’s inaugural Stella Prize–winning novel, Mateship with Birds, is set in the 1950s around Cohuna, a town in northern Victoria, and named after a 1922 book of bird notes by Australian writer Alec Chisholm.

Both in this novel and in her first, award-winning book Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, Tiffany re-creates historical periods through invoking the everyday publications – the guides, manuals, newspapers and magazines – of the age. It’s a marvellous way of steeping the reader in the language, outlook and anxieties of the time.

In Mateship with Birds we meet Betty, who works as a nurse in an old people’s home and lives with her two children on a property outside the town. Living next door is Harry, a dairy farmer, whose wife, Edna, has left him, running off with a man from the bird fanciers’ club. Their lives are full of the practical necessities of running a farm, but also a kind of yearning: they are always wondering about the world around them. Though they are ostensibly ordinary people, Tiffany interests us in the moments of their lives that tell us more about what makes them tick.

The novel is about desire – the longing for sex and love, adventure and acceptance, and the ways desire can be channelled to unusual outlets if life does not unfold in easy ways.

Betty’s teenaged son, Michael, and her young daughter, Little Hazel, are in the mix, too. Hazel is walking to school one day when their neighbour Mues, a cracked rural isolate, invites her to see his pony in a barn on his property. He exposes himself to her, and the child learns how adults disappoint: “They hold one thing in their hand and call it another.” Mues is a cruel man who has a pathetic and bestial interest in one of his ewes. Tiffany handles these scenes brilliantly.

Michael is enamoured with the idea of sex, but has no idea what to do about it. Harry has been taking a fatherly interest in the children, and decides to educate the teenager in the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to sex.

The book adds another dimension to the inner lives of the characters: there are the prose poems Harry writes about a family of kookaburras, the notes Betty makes about the childhood illnesses of her son and daughter, a nature diary kept by Hazel, and the letters that Harry writes to Michael.

Do you think these add to the novel?

What about the relationships the characters have with animals – observing the bird life around them, living closely with a devoted dog, caring for the birthing and lactating cows in a way that is intensely physical – how do these relationships stand in contrast to Mews and his ewe?

How well does Tiffany invoke time and place in this book?

I think Carrie Tiffany has written about the mysteries of sex, masturbation, perversion and the longing for love in a most original and refreshing way, and I found the book full of wisdom and humour.

It asks us to rethink our ideas of what family is, of how a small community might accommodate differences and of what kind of animal we are. We think about what is natural, what is normal, and how our relationships with each other reflect the cycles we might observe in the natural world around us.

Watch my interview with Carrie Tiffany, read the book (and her award-winning first novel, too) and tell us what you think of the book and the questions it raises for you.

Watch the interview

Read the transcript