Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 29, 2012

Mateship with Birds, by Carrie Tiffany #BookReview

2013 Miles Franklin

2013 Miles Franklin Award

Mateship with BirdsMateship with Birds is a clever title for this book.  While’ bird’ can mean both the winged variety and in slang, a sexually attractive woman, ‘mateship’ draws on dual meanings too: mating – finding a mate, courtship rituals and mating for life; and also the Australian notion of mateship – meaning a special kind of friendship: laconic, but loyal: an indivisible, enduring bond between equals.  In an Australian bush town in the 1950s, the wooing of a woman is more complex than the instinctive courtship of birds, but if it succeeds, the down-to-earth relationship that emerges is solid and strong, a mateship for life.  But how best can a lonely man achieve it?  A slow, careful campaign that shows what a great father he’d be?  Or give in to instinct and be a lover, as the birds do?

Harry is a dairy farmer and Betty is an aged-care nurse who’s escaped to the country with her two fatherless children, Michael and Little Hazel.  She is fiercely independent but a neighbourly relationship has developed.  She binds up Harry’s occasional cuts and bruises and gets him through a kidney attack; he lends a hand around the house every now and again.  But there’s reserve between them, with feelings unexpressed and much unsaid.

After a few years they have the impression that Harry is always there, but in fact he is only ever there in small snatches – a meal, the delivery of a particular item, collecting Michael to help with the cows.  The operations of the family are attractive to him, but also unsettling.  When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next. (p16)

Harry’s passion is bird-watching, and through a journal in verse, we learn about the activities of a family of kookaburras throughout the year: Mum, Dad, Club-Toe and Tiny. Harry’s  ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, written in an old milk ledger to share with Michael, records the cycle of life: birth, death, and wooing.  The birds have family squabbles but they unite against an intruder.  They share the work of hunting and caring for the young. Harry attributes emotion to them too: there is love and loyalty; jealousy and sulking; hesitation and fear of the unknown.

The parallels with the human misfits hesitating to form a family are cunningly woven into the story, and there are some lovely images in these verse passages:

It seems plausible to consider
That birds were the architects for trees.
A hollow,
or a fork,
for every nesting cradle; a branch for every grip.
And they designed a structure
to which insects are naturally attracted
like women to the shops. (p135)

One of my favourite moments in Harry’s slow adoption of Betty’s kids is his act of kindness for Little Hazel.  There’s a school holiday camp to see the snow at Mt Baw Baw, and the girl has never seen the snow.  But it’s accepted that she can’t go.  Tiffany doesn’t labour the point but the condition of the house shows that there is no spare money for school trips: when it’s ‘nippy’ in the winter in the sleep-out – ‘a closed-in section of the verandah with timber boards halfway up the walls and louvred aluminium windows above them’ – Little Hazel ‘buries her head under the blankets to get to sleep and often wakes in the morning with an earache from the draught’ (p103).  But Harry, unasked, waits till Little Hazel is at school and then – using the legendary Aussie ingenuity for adapting things and ‘making do’ – makes a wonderland of snow in Little Hazel’s bedroom using kapok from a pillow.  (A pillow that he says is just an old one.  But Betty buys him a replacement one at the co-op anyway.  She knows).

So things are looking good. But oh dear, Harry, whose own experiences of learning about women and wooing began badly with a vague and confusing sex education lesson from the vicar and ended with a failed marriage, thinks it might be a good idea to teach Michael about the ‘birds and the bees’.  And to say that his efforts are clumsy is an understatement, and Betty is not best pleased when she finds out about it!

You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if they sort it out.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Carrie Tiffany
Title: Mateship with Birds
Publisher: Picador, 2011
ISBN: 9781742610764
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $19.99.


Mateship with Birds


  1. Quite an interesting piece, especially since it speaks to the process of proper courtship. Sounds like a must-read

    • Hello Kwadwo, and welcome to ANZ LitLovers:) So many millions of words in fiction have been written about love, romance and courtship – and yet most of us are still clumsy and hesitant when true love beckons! It seems to matter not how old we are, or what gender, or how many times we’ve been in love before, that fear of rejection is almost overpowering…
      BTW I do like your explanation of the logo-ligi icon on your blog, and I am delighted to find another source of reviews about African literature. I’ve made my first contribution to Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge and I am excited about discovering the wealth and diversity of books that through the web are starting to become available to us now.
      PS One thing I discovered recently when I tried to send a book to Kinna was that for some odd reason, the Book Depository doesn’t deliver to Ghana, so you may have a bit of difficulty getting hold of this book. Is there an eRetailer based in Africa, similar to Fishpond who specialise in Australian books and are based here?

  2. Another handy review Lisa.
    I’ve gone ahead and ordered this one. Definitely sounds like my “cup of tea”.
    Have you read her other book ‘Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living’? I have heard that is also quite good.

  3. I really liked Everyman and so was pleased to finally see something new from Carrie Tiffany. From reading your review I am sure that this is another read that I will thoroughly enjoy.

    • Marg, are you starting a new blog yourself?

  4. Looking forward to reading this sometime in the next few weeks :)

    By the way, what is happening with your blog? Your posts are popping up all over the place on my blog roll…

    • Huh? what do you mean about your blog roll? I can’t see a reference to ANZLL on your blog at all…

      • Not that I know of. Why?

        • Marg, when I click on the link on your name it goes to a blog with no content except the stuff that WordPress has on a new blog….

          • Oh that. I started to set up a blog where I could moan and groan and feel sorry for myself away from my book blogs, but I haven’t gotten around to actually doing anything there yet!

            Haven’t figured out how to do templates etc.

          • *chuckle* Don’t give me ideas!
            Seriously, what’s happening is that when you’re commenting your computer is remembering the URL for that one instead of The Intrepid Reader. You will need to watch out for this and manually change it when you comment if it happens, because – everybody does this, not just me – when someone makes an interesting observation and there’s a link to their blog I follow it, and that’s how I’ve made all kiinds of friends and discovered all the best blogs on the web.

            • Something has changed because I did check when I first set it up because I didn’t necessarily want my moaning and groaning to be all that public!

              When I click it goes to gravatar which has the correct URL!

              • Check inside WordPress that Intrepid is your *primary* blog, I think it’s in settings…no it’s not, I just checked, it’s in My Blogs (Dashboard/Top LHS menu) and it lists all the blogs you’ve got. Your primary blog will be at the top. If it’s not Intrepid, click the radio button next to it and that will move it up.

  5. P.S. Just noticed your link to my post of ‘Everyman’s…’ – thanks :)

  6. Well, now I’m really looking forward to reading this… I read Everyman’s when it first came out in the UK and really liked it.

    • It’s such a lovely surprise when an author you like brings out the next book, especially when there’s been a bit of a wait. It’s like getting an unexpected present.

  7. This and Peter Carey’s newest are my next reads. :)

    • Well, you won’t find two more different books, but they share that quirky Aussie humour:)

      • Lisa – my local bookshop said to send their thanks to you and all the other book-bloggers, because so much of their sales now come from people who’ve read about books on sites like this :)

        So – they say thanks.

        • Wow, that is lovely and I am so glad if my ramblings are bringing customers in to buy books! Lisa

          • Well, yes – that’s all very well, but I blew $89 on that visit…

            (well worth it though! Carey, Tiffany and Christopher Morgan’s “Currawalli St” :) )

            • (thank heavens for loyalty points ;) )

              • What’s the name of this shop with loyalty points?

  8. I have just finished the Mateship with Birds, a wonderful read. Carrie Tiffany is so natural in her writing. I couldn’t help but think, I was with Harry watching the birds and all.

  9. […] review is here and you can read more about Carrie Tiffany […]

  10. […] Lisa @ ANZ Litlovers liked it too. […]

  11. […] You may like to read the reviews written by Lisa (ANZLitLovers), John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante), Matt (A Novel Approach) and Kim (Reading […]

  12. […] To see what others think of this book, do check out Naomi’s review on The Writes of Woman, Tony’s on Tony’s Reading List and Lisa’s on ANZ LitLovers. […]

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