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Observations of desire at Cohuna: Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds

*Spoiler alert: this is not intended as a straight review and I do refer to key plot points in this analysis.

Mateship with Birds is a reflection on the various tangled forms of desire, love, and lust. In a revealing passage towards the end of the novel, Tiffany writes of one of the protagonists’s understanding of sex, ‘At thirteen Harry knew nothing. None of what he had seen in the paddocks and the bush seemed applicable to men and women – or at least not the buttoned-up and smoothed-down men and women of his acquaintance.’ In this work, however, everything in the paddocks and the bush are applicable to men and women. Sex and desire are written as a biological impulse where the humans of the novel are no different to all the many other animals who populate the text.

Tiffany’s novel is set in 1950s rural Victoria in a town called Cohuna, and tracks the life of Betty, a single mother with two children – Michael and Little Hazel – and her relationship with a dairy farmer called Harry. It is the intersections of the life of this family of three with Harry that plots the course of the novel. In this work we are not shown the ‘buttoned-up and smoothed-down’ relationships of men and women. Instead, we are given all the intricate, inescapable, helpless and bewildering aspects of desire: the longing of Harry’s dog for him, ‘her whole existence, every sinewy fibre of her, is turned to the feel of Harry’s hand across the smooth cockpit of her skull’; the desire of the old men in the nursing home for the lost vitality of their youth; the adolescent desire of Betty’s teenage son Michael for his ‘study buddy’ Dora; and the slow burn of the resigned desire Harry and Betty have for one another: ‘Betty meanders within herself; she’s full of quiet pockets. The girl Dora might be water, but his Betty is oil. You can’t take oil lightly. It seeps into your skin. It marks you.’

There is much that Tiffany does beautifully: such as her evocative portrait of rural Australia, ‘The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin,’ and the tenderly drawn, though restrained, relationship between Betty and Harry. Yet, there were, I felt, problems here and in order to explain them I need to refer to some of the key plot points in the work – which is why I offered the spoiler alert at the beginning, turn away now if you don’t want to know what happens – and they are primarily to do with the character Mues.

Mues is a one-dimensional villain. His first appearance in the novel – at exactly ten pages in – is to expose himself to a young girl:

She is trying to look around him, into the corner, when he turns, his trousers slide slowly down his legs, the end of his belt curves around his ankles like a tail and she sees that he is not wearing underpants. That he is holding his shirt up on purpose to reveal his dick, all raw and swollen pink.

His next appearance is to cruelly and mercilessly shoot two cockatoos, watching as one mourns the loss of its mate; he then slaughters a sheep, not even waiting until it is completely dead before skinning it; and in the final appearance, is caught in the act of raping a sheep which he has kept for that purpose for several years:

They both stood for several seconds adjusting to the dim light inside the shed. They saw the sheep lying on its side in the straw, its legs hobbled with a pair of reins and Mues behind it on his knees with his overalls down, the shoulder straps splayed out behind him like his own set of ties he had broken free of. They both saw the blue nightie lying in the straw next to the sheep. The sheep lifted its head slightly in the direction of the sound they had made with the door. Mues didn’t stop, he didn’t look up. He said, ‘Shut the door.’ And they did.

This scene is perhaps intended as the climax of the novel. Yet, this apparently shocking instance doesn’t have the sort of horrifying affect it is presumably meant to because we already know Mues is a loathsome character from the very opening pages of the novel – it is difficult to feel horror at the actions of a man who we already know exposes himself to young girls and has displayed increasing levels of cruelty to animals. It reminded me of that Russell Brand riff about a newspaper report of a man practicing witchcraft in his prison cell (see here, one minute in). The effect is lessened because we already know the character is abhorrent.

Indeed, exactly like those criminals we read about in tabloid newspapers, Mues doesn’t develop into anything further than a cartoon villain. He’s not even a dark presence lurking in the background of the novel, but is instead trotted out at various points in the novel to do something increasingly awful, only to disappear again. How much more affecting would it have been for the perpetrator to have been written in the same way Harry had been – as someone we are close to and care about? Both are lonely men, isolated and single on their respective farms. Mues, one presumes, is how Harry could just as easily end up. But instead of any insight into Mues’s mind we get a single paragraph about his trial in which he says ‘It was a ewe. It’s not as if I’m a fucking homo,’ and then that’s the end for this miscreant.

Yet there is something else here. A further reason Mues’s abuse of the sheep doesn’t exactly come as a shock is because it is, in some ways, a logical extension and culmination of what Tiffany’s entire novel has really been about: that humans, and the female body in particular, are exactly like that of an animal, or indeed, the land. That we all have the same ‘animal instincts’ whether we walk on two legs or four, or fly like the family of kookaburras who sit, unconcerned, above all the events of the novel.

One of the key points of the book is Harry’s decision to write a series of letters to Betty’s son Michael in order to aid his sexual education. Michael doesn’t have a father and is becoming increasingly enamoured of a girl at his school, and so Harry takes it upon himself to offer the sort of advice he wishes he had received at Michael’s age. The gesture is heart-felt and in some ways endearing. Yet Harry’s clumsy attempts to explain female sexuality in terms of farm animals or plants reminded me of the cringe-inducing metaphors of Mellors the gardener in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Harry’s letters to Michael employ the language of agriculture and farming that is familiar to both of them, and so women are compared to chicken, ‘The structure of the female sex organ is complex (more on this to follow) but as for the skin, expect a wattled texture (think poultry)’; or cows, ‘Don’t go too easy with touch, Michael. Skin thickness will be different in different women. (Some udders are upholstered in canvas, others in tissue paper)’; and, in one of the more offensive instances:

‘See that cow?’ Harry says, pointing at her.

‘Yep,’ Michael says.

‘She’s a fine example. Well covered. It’s a good sign in a female too. A good question to ask yourself, Michael – is she well covered?

Michael’s eyes widen. He looks around in surprise. Harry continues, his voice in a firmer register now as he warms to the topic.

‘Modern dresses are appalling. I have a mind to write to the magazines or the pattern makers. Women are not fields of flowers, or ghosts, or clouds, or presents tied up with bows…The dress should give a man some indication of the basic shape of the female it contains. Is she well covered? What of the rump and bosom?… Think of how we choose a milker at the sales – lean against her and see that she isn’t going to collapse.’

It isn’t, I feel, so great a leap from these sorts of comparisons to the kinds of activities Mues engages in. Indeed, farming and sexuality are so intertwined in the novel that Harry writes in a letter to Michael, ‘prior to spasm I sometimes see a very calming image of a well-irrigated pasture.’ Harry’s job as a dairy farmer is similarly expressed in sexual terms, ‘A quality milker demonstrates a calm authority. He milks the herd fast and dry. The atmosphere is of relaxed arousal.’

Even one of the rare glimpses we get into Betty’s past and her marriage is linked to that of an animal: the way a wedding ring marks the skin of a finger the same way a collar marks the fur on the neck of a dog. ‘A long-worn ring leaves the same braided indent on the skin after it has been removed as a collar. The mark isn’t visible to the eye, but it gives itself up to touch.’

In a guest post last week Elizabeth Redman wrote of the smells of books, and Mateship with Birds is teeming with urine, blood, milk, mucus, semen, faeces. There isn’t a bodily function imaginable that escapes mention in Tiffany’s work – from human or animal. Much of it felt unnecessary, as though Tiffany sought to make her characters more ‘real’ through documenting every aspect of their base biology. But she needn’t have, as the novel evokes most characters wonderfully. The point of all this seems to be that humans are no different to animals – a message that seems rather prosaic.

In this analysis, however, I have simply sought to tease out an aspect of the novel that I found problematic. Others, perhaps, will not see fault with it. Indeed, a recent review in The Age claimed that ‘it might just be the sweetest book about sex you will ever read.’ For me, it was one of the more problematic books about sex I’ve read.

Tiffany has written fascinating characters – particularly Little Hazel, who I longed to hear more from. Her reaction to Mues’s exposure was brilliant and made me think that this was to be a surprising and fascinating novel. The relationship between Betty and Harry too was charming, and I would’ve liked to have seen more of this (their final sex scene is almost jarringly abrupt). Essentially, it felt as though there were the beginnings of a great novel here, but one that isn’t given space to develop. At one point in the book Harry takes out an old milk ledger:

The left-hand column is full of pencilled figures, but the right-hand column is blank throughout the book. It’s wide enough for a few notes, and it’s better than leaving the paper unused or buying a new book. Harry writes, ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’

Mateship with Birds feels similarly like notes and observations on the desires, lusts and happenings of a human family at Cohuna. I wish Tiffany had been given the whole page to write instead of just one column.

– Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds is out now via Pan Macmillan. RRP $19.99

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