I’m including this review as part of Kim at Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month. You can find out more about that here.
1940s Australia. Betty Reynolds and her two children – Michael and Hazel – have moved to a small town and are living in a rented house next to a dairy farm.
She came here pregnant with Little Hazel, Michael still in short pants by her side. The people of Cohuna assume that she must have had, at some stage, a husband – perhaps killed in the war? Apart from her work and her children Betty keeps to herself. She wears no rings. When doesn’t correct people when they call her Mrs Reynolds, but she refers to herself as just Betty or, where possible, Michael and Hazel’s mum.
The dairy farmer Harry lives next door. He fancies Betty, although nothing has come of this so far:
Harry hangs far enough back so he can watch the way she moves. He likes her plump forearms, the cardigan pushed up around them; the gilt band of her watch digging into her wrist. He likes the sound of her clothes moving her around her middle. When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – lipstick on her front teeth. He’s been watching all of this, over the years, watching her body age and temper.
He’s also positioned himself as a substitute father to Michael and Little Hazel, often coming over to the house for tea and chatting to Michael about his bird books. Michael also helps Harry out on the farm so when Harry catches Michael masturbating over a copy of Woman and Home, he decides to pass on everything he knows about sex. As he finds it difficult to do this face-to-face, he writes Michael detailed letters which veer between his own personal experiences and biological details:
The sexual organ (I’m talking inside front of underpants here, Michael), breasts (esp. nipples) and lips feature a skin uniquely inflamed with blood. Unlike the ordinary body skin (and male skin), where the blood runs in controlled networks of veins and arteries and sub-veins and sub-arteries (think horticultural drip and pipe irrigation), the blood in the sexual areas is right at the very surface.
Harry’s letters form part of two interwoven themes run throughout the book: nature and writing. Nature is shown through both the birds and animals that inhabit the farm and the town and also the people – Betty, Harry, Michael, Mues – another farmer – and the residents of Acacia Court.
As for the writing, Harry writes to Michael, as mentioned but he also keeps a notebook of poetic observations about the kookaburras that live on his farm – ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’. Hazel also begins a nature diary at school, commenting on the birds that visit her class’s bird table and Betty keeps a notebook of her children’s illnesses and accidents:
Michael: Burns at stove, pecked by gander, warts, skewered with fork, constipation, infected splinters, ball-bearing lodged in ear, sticky eye, fevers, boils.
Little Hazel: Colic, croup, nappy rash, fever, runny stools, earache.
I enjoyed the book but I’m not sure I got what Tiffany’s point was. Perhaps Little Hazel’s encounter with Mues near the beginning of the book is the closest I’ll get for now. She’s walking to school alone and Mues asks her if she wants to see his pony. His ‘pony’ turns out to be his erect penis.
At that moment Little Hazel understands that she will never, ever, get a Shetland pony. Her life will be no different to everybody else’s – made up of cobbling things together that are misshapen, ill-suited, imperfect. That wanting something badly enough is not enough to get it. And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.
So writing, as we know, is an attempt to make sense of the world, whether through observing humans or animals.
Have you read Mateship with Birds? What did you make of it?