The Tally Stick—book review

The Tally Stick, by Carl Nixon

Here’s one I strongly recommend as a Christmas present. It’s got a very wide appeal, it’s a mixed genre—mystery-ish, crime-y, survival, literary fiction—whatever category it falls into, it’s a gripping read, the sort of book you take on holiday to justify staying all day in the hammock.

The story starts horrifically with a car coming off the road and plunging through the trees into a river below. It has a real “there but the grace of God” feeling to it—who hasn’t taken a corner too fast on some remote bush road and put a hand to their heart when the tires held? John Chamberlain’s last hope, as they leave the road and he reaches for his wife and baby in the passenger seat beside him, is that his children in the back are still asleep.

They’re not. They climb out and sit on the bank and wait to be rescued as the eels swarm around the smashed front of the car (blech), but the terrain is rugged, they are disorientated and help doesn’t come. Finally a man comes out of the bush and leads them to his house. Is it a rescue?

The story is set in 1978 and the family were on holiday after arriving from England, a scenic drive down the West Coast before John was to begin a new job. It’s a while before they are reported missing. Searches over a wide area return nothing, the car tracks are lost in mud, the bush undisturbed.

Thirty two years later, an aunt in England, who has travelled to New Zealand and joined the fruitless searches, is contacted with the news that the remains of the oldest child have been found, together with his father’s watch, close to the coast. He died four years after the crash.

The story of the aunt interlocks with the children’s story as we unravel what happened to them over the intervening years.

There are strange forces at play: dominance, psychological damage, a culture of isolation and dependence. It’s believable in that horrible one step leading to another down a dark path kind of way.

The Tally Stick of the title is a strange piece of wood found with the boy’s remains, identified as half a record of debt, the person to whom he owes the debt holds the other half. Debt is a main theme in the story: how is a debt agreed, does it differ across cultures, how is it repaid, how do debts bind us? It’s uncomfortable reading; at times I felt the need to unhook myself from the book.

The children’s story is held up mainly by the middle child, Katherine, who is kind and trusting and makes the best of things, which is confusing. The reader’s probably thinking: I wouldn’t do that, but perhaps Katherine is right?

I’m still unsure about the youngest child, Tommy and wonder what Nixon intends with the terrible neglectful treatment meted out to him, even from his otherwise kind sister. It’s a skillfully written book and the poor child must be included to tell us something but it’s hard to get a feeling for him because he is dismissed. He bashes his head terribly in the accident and becomes dysfunctional but this doesn’t surprise the children and they never mention him any other way, we get no feeling of his past self at all. Perhaps he always had these disabilities? It seems to me a great failing, either of the children or the book, I’m not sure.

Lots to think about in The Tally Stick, take it on holiday with you and pass it around. You’ll all love it, whoever you all are.

Author: cristinasandersblog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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