REVIEWED BY KATHARINE ENGLAND
These accomplished and original fictions share a wonderful eye for the Australian landscape and affection for its avian fauna. Tiffany’s second novel is set on the edge of a similar northern Victorian farming town to that of her 2005 Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, and is again told with affecting clarity and tenderness tinged with humour.
Gentle, lonely, laconic Harry records in a kind of rough poetry the activities of the kookaburras that share his property, meanwhile bashfully fantasising over his neighbour. Betty, in turn, entertains her own fantasies that both sweeten and mock her existence as an aide in a nursing home and socially suspect mother of two fatherless children.
It may be too far-fetched to see the novel’s title as a very Ocker pun, but while Harry is detailing the behaviour of his kookaburras he is also making candid notes on physical relations with women from his own observations (of birds and cows as well as humans) and his experience with his wife, long-departed with a more up-market bird-watcher. The notes are a fatherly offering to teenage Michael so he will not have to suffer the ignorance and embarrassment that undermined Harry’s own sexual initiation.
Good intentions do not save Harry from Betty’s revulsion and anger when she discovers one of the notes, but under the influence of another range of birds – brolgas and a frozen winking owl – a change is effected in the relative strengths of the pair that leads to a thoroughly satisfactory ending.
Moving from Mateship to the first of Stephen Scourfield’s three novellas one at first misses the clean, uncluttered poetry of Tiffany’s disciplined prose. Scourfield is a great one for clots of exotic adjectives, convoluted sentences and repetition of full names, but it is a style worth getting used to for the intensity of his observation and the urgency of his concerns.
The novellas, all set in Western Australia, tell separate stories – the first about a luthier who makes a remarkable violin, the second about a romance between a young man and a spunky elderly woman, and the third about a determinedly ethical naturalist – but all are satisfyingly linked by tiny echoes, small coincidences and shared references.
The Little Sandy Desert is shared by the luthier and the naturalist (and metaphorically by the young man), as are Bach’s exacting partitas and sonatas for solo violin. The same Buddhist monk turned New York diamond dealer impresses the practical Buddhist ethic, never lie, on both the young man and the naturalist, both of whom are concerned about the Sixth Mass Extinction in which Scourfield believes we are all currently implicated.
This is a novel rich in esoteric information and in the passionate illumination of the natural world, but its driving principle is the importance of living a considered, ethical life, and thus making productive use of the unexpected spaces, those “unaccountable hours”, with which we may be blessed.