RE­VIEWED BY KATHARINE ENG­LAND

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - BOOKS -

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.

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