The Axeman’s Carnival – book review

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey

Last book of the year and an absolute favourite. I devoured this in a couple of long sessions after Christmas and it’s a splendid read, just perfect to take on holiday (or mooch in the hammock at home ignoring things, as I did). I hand on heart recommend this to anyone. It’s such a great yarn. Very rural kiwi.

Yes, the narrator is a talking magpie, so immediately the story has the feeling of a fable; we’re alert to the fact that there will be a moral lesson tucked in, to be revealed by the talking animal. This is slightly upended by the fact that magpies are great mimics, so maybe the animal isn’t talking but is merely parroting, which is within bounds of possibility. We’ll leave that open.

Tama, the magpie, falls from his nest as a naked chick and is rescued by Marnie, who is grieving a miscarriage and needs something to nurture. He is an intelligent and observant bird, but still a bird, who doesn’t really understand how a house works but reports what he sees. Some things (like washing machines) he understands immediately and you just have to take a leap of faith on that, other things (like bruises) confuse him.

Marnie’s husband Rob, the eponymous axeman (he competes in woodcutting competitions), is a grumpy bugger who’s not keen on the new pet. All is not well on the farm. Marnie’s sister lives on a neighbouring block with her city husband, they’re diversifying into peacherines (good for you, says Rob), and the mother stops by occasionally to marvel at Rob’s prowess with the wood chopping and hints that Marnie is getting fat and unattractive. Rob is under a lot of pressure. Things go on in the household that shouldn’t, but the pair keep it to themselves, because it won’t happen again.

Tama’s vocabulary grows, fed on household conversation and TV cop shows. He’s a brilliant mimic. ‘Those are defensive wounds’ he says, and ‘I will take you down, motherfucker.’ Marnie puts some of the cuter clips on social media (he says ‘meow’ when he goes out the cat flap) and Tama gains a fan base. He plays for the camera, chats and whistles tunes. ‘Don’t you dare,’ he says. ‘We can’t use profanities.’ ‘Your cells remember a famine.’ The fans multiply. ‘I’m at the end of my rope.’ ‘Get yourself some alpacas.’

There’s money in followers and Rob and Marnie get an agent, advertisers, cameras, merchandise. ‘Bunch of cunts,’ says Tama (oops, live feed in the living room) ‘Have you seen the muscles on him?’ The marketing goes viral, the thing is out of control and we are pulled along wondering how it will all end.

The money rolling in doesn’t change the underlying problem in the house, of course. Even the magpie seems to know things are heading towards a bad outcome. The axeman’s carnival looms.

Chidgey has created a masterpiece of tension in this book. Tama is the jester of the story, but it is Marnie facing the mounting danger and we feel for her on every turn of the page. The Axeman’s Carnival has a fable-like ending, so perhaps it is a fable after all.

Whatever it is, it is brilliant.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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