Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland.
Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love. He has his eye on Betty Reynolds, the unmarried mother of Michael and Little Hazel, who rents a small house next door. Betty is forty-five; for eight years Harry has watched her body age: ‘When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – the lipstick on her front teeth.’ The air around them is thick with reticence. If there is sexual tension between them, it is buried deep. There doesn’t seem to be much need for talk, the narrator observes, but sometimes they talk about bunions.
Given its title – borrowed from A.H. Chisholm’s 1922 book of bird notes – a reader could be forgiven for thinking Tiffany’s novel is about ornithology. To a small degree it is. Harry observes a family of kookaburras that roost on his farm, and records his notes in poetry. Harry’s first poem, ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, is written for Betty’s fourteen-year-old son, Michael. It begins:
The day starts in their throats.
Dad first, then Mum,
Tiny and Club-Toe.
The form of them in the red gum
by the dairy.
As regular as clockwork
they make their request for air.
Clichés aside (‘regular as clockwork’), at times the poems deliver a pleasing turn of phrase. Harry doesn’t pretend to be a poet, so there is not much use in applying a critical eye to his work. But given that his six poems span almost forty pages (approximately twenty per cent of the novel), Tiffany might have been wiser to submit Harry’s ramblings to a severe pruning. By any standard, the poems are too long, reliant on generalities, and painfully repetitive. How many times, for instance, can a reader encounter the likes of this without being tempted to skip ahead: ‘They come at dusk, / one by one. / Mum, Dad, / Club-Toe / and Bub.’
But poetry is not all that Harry is inspired to write. One day, after a morning spent artificially inseminating heifers, Harry stumbles upon Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, which – along with the courtship rituals of spiders – presents a series of case studies detailing the sexual histories of ordinary men and women.
In the evenings, armed with a cup of Milo, a sharpened pencil, and several sheets of Basildon Bond, Harry sits down to write his own intimate disclosures. He begins with his earliest memories of sexual arousal at age four or five, moves through various teen gratifications, and concludes with the pleasures and problems of his former conjugal bed. Harry addresses his letters to Michael in an effort to save the boy from the sexual ignorance Harry himself had experienced.
But Harry is not content to restrict his tutelage to theory. In one of the most bizarre scenes in the novel – and it must be said, there are many – Harry takes Michael behind the dairy to where the phalaris grass has gone to seed. Michael looks on as Harry clips the seed heads and prunes the clump. Harry clears his throat:
Strong and wiry, Michael, the female pubic bush. Coarse. Nothing like the soft hair of the head. I’ve always thought of it more as fur than hair. Similar colouring can be expected. Dark hair, dark bush; mousy hair, mousy bush and so on, and it’ll all go to grey in the end with senile decay. Not that you have to worry about that for a while, eh?
Harry takes Michael’s hand and places it on top of the phalaris. ‘Don’t be tempted to stay on the surface,’ he instructs, ‘you have to push in.’ Still holding Michael’s hand, Harry concludes: ‘The pubic bush. A bloody miracle. And it has no sense of gravity. Despite being stuck halfway up in the air most of the time, from what I can see it doesn’t droop.’
It is not clear what Michael – or the reader for that matter – is to make of these ‘lessons’, but needless to say when Betty learns of the sexual tutelage Harry has given her son, she is not happy. Worryingly, the novel’s easy resolution invites the reader to disregard Harry’s actions rather than see them as, at minimum, outrageously misguided and – it must be said – a little icky.
Conceivably an exploration of 1950s sexuality might have made a fascinating study, but ultimately Tiffany’s new novel offers little insight into the most fundamental of human desires. Her characters, uniformly doleful, remain opaque throughout, and the narrative fails to achieve lift off. Perhaps Tiffany would have done better to cast her material as a short story and save her second novel for one more fitting of the talent promised by her impressive first.
This article was originally published under the title ‘Dubious Lessons’ in Australian Book Review 338 (Feb 2012): 27.