Mateship With Birds gathered a lot of attention in 2013, in particular for being the inaugural winner of The Stella Prize, a prize dedicated to fiction by Australian women. As someone who could easily read little other than American fiction written by white men, I’ve been making a conscious decision recently to diversify what I read (I spoke more about this in the post for Questions of Travel). With friends speaking highly of Mateship With Birds, a flux of praise from critics and the attention from The Stella Prize, I thought I’d give this a try. Unfortunately, for me, it just didn’t follow through.
Mateship With Birds is set in a small country town in rural Australia. Betty is raising two children on a property surrounded by two neighbouring farms, one run by Harry, the other by Mues. The novel is a musing on country life, the every day details that make the setting a character in itself. There are some lovely interactions between Betty and Harry, such as their sharing of ‘The Victorian Dairy Farmer’ newspaper, which Harry gives Betty the family pages, and Betty reads the wider newspaper to talk to Harry about farming with. But there are also a number of sinister plot lines and shady characters in Mateship With Birds that made me feel incredibly uneasy. The story of Mues deciding to educate Michael about sex made me squirm and fearful. I didn’t find myself warming to any of the characters, and although this is not always a deal breaker, in Mateship With Birds it stopped me from engaging with the novel.
In Mateship With Birds, Carrie Tiffany follows a common pattern of Australian narratives where the focus is on character development and landscape over a strong story line. This is never been a trend I’ve appreciated. Sure, one of the things I love about novels over short stories is the chance to really learn about a character and see them grow throughout the story. But there must be a story. There is an arch here, but just not a strong enough story to have engaged me.
This also leads to an interesting question – if Mateship With Birds had not have won The Stella Prize, would I have read it? Probably not, to be honest. By about half way through the book I realised I was reading due to a sense of duty to finish it, rather than from enjoyment. But I feel ok about that. The wonderful thing about prizes for fiction in particular is that they can open up new titles, new authors, and new ideas that you may not have paid attention to previously. Sure, there will always be prizes that appeal to the popular in order to gain publicity, safe choices that honour already lauded authors. But I love the idea of prizes being a breakthrough for an author, allowing them to reach a new audience, funding them to write further novels, and pushing them to achieve new heights. So while I didn’t enjoy Mateship With Birds, I’m glad the publicity it received pushed me to try it.
Quintessentially Australian as Mateship With Birds is a good old-fashioned heatwave. Last week Melbourne broke new records by setting the longest heatwave in 100 years. At times like these, where sleep is at a premium and the desire to even turn on a stovetop let alone eat anything warm, seems out of the question, this recipe for Orange and Vanilla Overnight Oats by Green Kitchen Stories was perfect. Mostly prepared the night before, I was able to rise wearily in the morning and know that at least one part of my day was quick, cool and easy. Soaking the oats in orange juice rather than milk made them less stodgy and easier to digest in the heat, but a decent dollop of natural yoghurt added just enough creaminess to balance out the sharpness of the juice. Then, finally, when the heatwave breaks, a leisurely breakfast with a big pot of tea can be enjoyed for the flavours themselves, rather than just the convenience.