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Carrie Tiffany: Mateship with Birds

April 10, 2013

Carrie Tiffany, Mateship with BirdsI grew up on a dairy farm in the fifties. Carrie Tiffany spent her childhood at first in London and then in a Perth suburb in the seventies.

Yet in Mateship with Birds Tiffany recreates dairy farming in the fifties exactly as I remember it: the ubiquity of cowshit, the Baltic Simplex milking machine that was always breaking down, the twice daily milking: “The first cow brings back the feeling in his fingers. He slides his hands up and along the warm skin between her udder and her belly, throws up a mug of wash from the pail, sluices the whole thrumming organ, feels for the cups, tests the pull of suction and threads them on. Fat udders with bud teats, small, fruity udders with long spiked teats like landmines, slack udders, tight udders.”

Tiffany gets cows exactly right – their relationships with each other and with the farmer, their status jostles, and the organic nature of the herd, with alarm, anger or confusion flowing from one to the others, just like a family.

The dairy farmer, Harry, entertains himself while milking “with the idea that the girls are a troupe – perhaps dancers or singers – and that he is their manager.” This delightful passage is quoted in full on ANZ Litlovers Litblog as one of the blog’s “sensational snippets.”

Harry’s neighbour is Betty, single mother of two children. While a fifties reticence holds Harry and Betty back, sex runs rampant in their private thoughts – and in the world around them, including the family of kookaburras that Harry keenly observes.

Carrie Tiffany

Carrie Tiffany (source: author’s website)

On Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily, Tiffany said: “I do write in a kind of collage fashion where it’s about accumulation and observation rather than plot or narrative.” I cannot remember a more accurate description of a book by its author. There is almost no plot, so that people who prefer narrative-driven fiction might be bored. And although I was entranced by Tiffany’s observations of birds, cows and people, I sometimes became impatient, wondering if anything was ever going to happen. Finally, in the last quarter of the book, there are several incidents.

Mateship with Birds has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. So far I’ve only read three books on the list, but they are so utterly different the judges must be daunted by their task. How can the short, collage-style Mateship be compared with Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain, which is twice as long and narrative-driven, or Jacqueline Wright’s Red Dirt Talking, which is both collage and narrative? But then, each book is a novel, that is, it recreates a world, whether that be fifties dairying, pre-independence Papua New Guinea, or a remote community in the nineties. These three books each fulfil their world-creating role superbly.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2013 10:41 am

    I agree, as I know from participating in some Shadow Juries, judging things is terribly difficult. Although I am still waiting on one of the titles to come from the library, I have a tentative winner which I’m keeping private because I think my reviews speak for themselves.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    April 11, 2013 10:07 am

    I’ve enjoyed your reviews of the longlisted books and I think I’ve identified your tentative winner. Hoping to read more of them before the award is announced, but I can’t keep up with your reading pace.

  3. Bryce permalink*
    April 17, 2013 11:48 am

    Mateship with Birds is now a worthy winner of the inaugural Stella Prize, the major new literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing.

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