The Axeman's Carnival
Winner of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2023 Ockham NZ Book Awards
Everywhere, the birds: sparrows and skylarks and thrushes, starlings and bellbirds, fantails and pipits – but above them all and louder, the magpies. We are here and this is our tree and we’re staying and it is ours and you need to leave and now.
Tama is just a helpless chick when he is rescued by Marnie, and this is where his story might have ended. ‘If it keeps me awake,’ says Marnie’s husband Rob, a farmer, ‘I’ll have to wring its neck.’ But with Tama come new possibilities for the couple’s future. Tama can speak, and his fame is growing. Outside, in the pines, his father warns him of the wickedness wrought by humans. Indoors, Marnie confides in him about her violent marriage. The more Tama sees, the more the animal and the human worlds – and all of the precarity, darkness and hope within them – bleed into one another. Like a stock truck filled with live cargo, the story moves inexorably towards its dramatic conclusion: the annual Axeman’s Carnival.
Part trickster, part surrogate child, part witness, Tama the magpie is the star of this story. Though what he says aloud to humans is often nonsensical (and hilarious with it), the tale he tells us weaves a disturbingly human sense. The Axeman’s Carnival is Catherine Chidgey at her finest – comic, profound, poetic and true.
'The unforgettable Tama – taken in and raised by Marnie on the Te Waipounamu high country farm she shares with champion axeman husband Rob – constantly entertains with his take on the foibles and dramas of his human companions. Catherine Chidgey’s writing is masterful, and the underlying sense of dread as the story unfolds is shot through with humour and humanity. The Axeman’s Carnival is unique: poetic, profound and a powerfully compelling read from start to finish.' —Judges' comments, Ockham NZ Book Awards 2023
'The best NZ book I’ve read lately is The Axeman's Carnival by Catherine Chidgey. I love the way the author ratchets up the sense of impending violence on a back-country farm, effortlessly crossing back and forth between the human world and the wild magpie world. . . . It’s a ripping yarn, and it’s changed the way I look at birds in the countryside – the ones who are looking at me, anyway.' —Don McGlashan, The Spinoff
'The Axeman’s Carnival is remarkable, brilliant, a classic in the making.' —Rachael King, Newsroom
'It is a dazzling and dizzying kaleidoscope portrayal of humanity and the natural world. There is beauty and brutality, love and violence, hilarity and disaster.' —Hannah Tunnicliffe, Kete Books
‘Catherine Chidgey fuses the sensibility of our cinema of unease – of life on a struggling back-blocks farm with a dour farmer – with the liberating and alienating madness of fame, all of it seen by the novel’s hero, the magpie Tama. Tama does all the voices – orchardists, tourists, fairground commentators, daffy activists, and the unappeasable axeman – and he does them justice. The Axeman’s Carnival is a compulsive read and flat-out brilliant.’ —Elizabeth Knox
‘One of the greatest works of storytelling I’ve read in such a long time, effortless and memorable.’ —Courtney Johnston, Things to Read
‘The magpie’s skill as a mimic is central to the book, providing comedy and poignance.’ —Bryan Gibson, Farmers Weekly
‘New Zealand novel of the year and bird of the year. Chidgey is one of our most accomplished novelists and her mischievous magpie creation, Tama, narrated a Kiwi gothic fable that perfectly balances darkness and light, violence and humour, on a remote South Island farm. The bird is the word.’ —Philip Matthews, Stuff Best Books of the Year
‘Tama the Magpie stars in this outrageously good rural drama that ramps up and up. A must-read from one of the country’s most acclaimed and generative writers.’ —Spinoff Christmas Picks
‘One of our very best novelists knocks it out of the park.’ —Kelly Ana Morey, New Zealand Herald Books of the Year
Catherine Chidgey’s novels have been published to international acclaim. Her first, In a Fishbone Church, won Best First Book at the New Zealand Book Awards and at the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific). In the UK it won the Betty Trask Award and was longlisted for the Orange Prize. Her second, Golden Deeds, was a Notable Book of the Year in The New York Times Book Review and a Best Book in the LA Times. Catherine has won the Prize in Modern Letters, the Katherine Mansfield Award, the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, the Janet Frame Fiction Prize, and the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for The Wish Child. She lives in Ngāruawāhia and lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Waikato. Her most recent novel, Remote Sympathy, was shortlisted for the DUBLIN Literary Award and the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, and was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Cover illustration and design: Jess Newton (jessnewton.com)