Jann Medlicott Prize for Fiction winner: The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey

A long long time ago, when I was a little chick, not even a chick but a pink and naked thing, a scar a scrap a scrape fallen on roots and wriggling, when I was catching my death and all I knew of sky was the feel of feathers above me, the belly of black as warm as a cloud above me, when I was blind, my eyes unsprouted seeds, my eyes dots of gravel stuck under skin, when I was a beak opening for nothing nothing nothing, she lifted me into her pillowed palm. 

The Axeman's Carnival

A well-deserved winnerfor the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in this years' Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, the opening lines of Catherine Chidgey's wonderful book read like poetry.

Myth, alliteration, and descriptive language spill from Chidgey's imagination to create a setting so incredibly Kiwi, you can almost smell the woodsmoke and sweat.

The Axeman's Carnival is a thoroughly modern tale told from the unique point of view of Tama(gotchi); a magpie, who goes viral on the internet. 

"You know if it keeps me awake I'll have to wring its neck."

Lurking under the surface of this cleverly realised story is the threat of violence - human and natural, underscoring the many moments of hilarity in this book.

Chidgey portrays domestic violence, hidden, unspoken, mistaken, regretted, repeated, and the violence towards animals that is often a part of farm life - pest control in the form of poison or gun, euthanasia perpetrated on sheep, or dogs who have outlived their usefulness, and the constant threat of death - death by car, death by cold, death by gun, death by dog... 

"And I didn't trust him. I was right not to trust him."

Marnie has had a miscarriage: the work of her apologetic, "I'll never do it again" husband Rob, who drinks heavily. Characters in the story are unaware of Marnie's situation, while the reader (and Tama) knows the full story.

The ghosts of Tama's mother and brothers guide and warn him throughout:

"He is bigger, he is stronger, he has fists of rock to crush you, he has fingers of rope to choke you."

Husband Rob is under the constant stress of trying to bring a generational Otago farm to profit in the face of drought, low wool prices and a house that's falling to pieces. His only real joys in life are the trophies he wins each year at the Axeman's Carnival. But even his greatest achievement is under pressure as a younger man threatens to knock him off his pedestal.

Marnie puts all her love into the rescued baby bird. Tama's survival is due to Marnie's interference with the harshness of nature. Which of course makes her already jealous husband resent the bird - until Tama gains a Twitter following.

Will this assuage Rob's doubts and jealousy? Will it ease the constant financial worry that 'excuses' his drinking and violence? Are her Twitter followers allies, or will they make everything worse for Marnie? 

"Marnie, Marnie, Mar Mar Mar. That was my first human word, and though I collected countless more it remained my favourite. When the house was quiet and I was alone I practised: Mar Mar Mar Mar. I felt the air moving in and out of me, the thrum of the syrinx deep in my breast as I tried to copy the sound. How strange the shape of their language, how blocky and thick. How stunted it still feels compared to my own. I tightened different muscles, vibrated different membranes, flexed my chest and my throat and even my tongue until I got that first word right. Then I collected another, and another.

Tama's interjections are so incredibly funny and inappropriate that they're perfectly hilarious - he swears, parrots lines from Rob's favourite murder show and lets things slip that have been said or done in secret.

'She wants it to live inside. In the house.'

Marnie's mother eyed me sitting on the kitchen table and said, 'That's a bit much. They carry parasites.'

'And they're pests.'

'Mmm', said Marnie's mother. 'They also eat pests.'

'Mmm,' said Rob.

'I know what Nick and Ange think.'

'That she's crazy. That I'm crazy.'

'I'm crazy,' I said.

Marnie's mother said, 'My goodness.'

Rob said, 'I told you.'

'Do you think it . . . understands us?'

'Now who's crazy?'

The magpie's instinctive mistrust of Rob reminds the reader that he is potentially dangerous, a dealer of fatal fates. Jealous in the extreme. Tama's protective response is like that of a dog:

"I shook myself, a bit f***$%g fed up to the back teeth. I would go to the master bedroom and confront him, I would stand between them, and if he tried to hurt her again I would pierce his eyes and drink his blood and clean his bones." 

This book is full of funny moments that temper the tantrums that must invariably come to a head. Tama has adventures that bring the world to Marnie and Rob's door, including a hilarious interlude with a couple of well-meaning but completely stupid animal rights activists.  

Absolutely wonderful!

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