The Axeman’s Carnival – Catherine Chidgey


Chosen by Suzy

From New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey is a story quite unlike her former novels. Instead of wartime Germany, this time the setting is rural New Zealand and the protagonist is a magpie called Tama, who narrates succinctly and regurgitates phrases moments after hearing them.

Tama falls from his nest as a chick and local farmer’s wife Marnie scoops him up and raises him. Though he has a magpie family in the trees, Tama learns the ways of his human parents and adopts them, copying phrases, sleeping in a mini bed with a pillow, meowing as he enters and exits via the cat door, and eating human food.

His owners decide to financially capitalise on his talents and install cameras throughout the home linked to an Instagram account, however the cameras capture more than expected and tell a private story of their own.

Tama’s naive outlook on life mimics what other authors do with child narrators, giving us the bare basics of information and letting us work out the real facts ourselves. There is a focus on domesticity, human relationships and power struggles or control.

I stepped … from the windowsill to the deep-freeze. My right eye saw the gathering night and my left eye saw Marnie and she was not going to wring my neck, or run me down, or shoot me, or poison me. That was not how houses worked. I threw myself on my back and waited for her to scratch my belly because she loved me.

● I really enjoyed this book! Having Tama the magpie as narrator was a bit of a wildcard approach, however Catherine Chidgey is so good I am now wondering why more novels don’t have magpie narrators! The main plot was absolutely a page-turner and was written with heart and a sensitivity to what were some fairly unpleasant events. There were also some humourous moments that allowed me to exhale rather than (what felt like) constantly holding my breath through the tension. Following our bookclub discussion there was a slight sense of unease about the author’s intention with a possible extended metaphor around colonisation, however we may have not been completely correct with that. – Suzy

● I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive learning the protagonist was a magpie!! I needn’t have worried – I loved it from the offset. Tama was a believable and charming protagonist. His perspective had an air of innocence in the complicated world of humans. The novel was littered with humour, disaster, love and brutality and a sense of dread that had me turning the pages. I was intrigued about what would play out. I loved the rural NZ setting and felt familiar with the surroundings where the novel was based. I  thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend The Axeman’s Carnival to anyone. – Jodie

● Catherine Chidgey is a top quality and consistent writer. Having a bird as narrator could put people off but with Chidgey there’s no doubt she’d make it work. Tama is a bird but he’s like narrators – human and otherwise – who relay events simply as they see them and allow the reader to be fully involved. I was so immersed in Tama’s life, Marnie and Rob’s life and all the drama and tension. The only part that disappointed me was the comparison of Tama’s life in a white family with colonisation (“he has been colonised … forced to wear degrading costumes … video shoots for the titillation of an international audience … erosion of his mother tongue … exploitative merchandise“). While I value stories of colonisation, this felt suddenly thrown at us, political, and out of character for the book. However to Chidgey’s credit it did not turn into a moralistic lecture. The story’s conclusion was suitable to the style of the book and in the end I loved 99.9% of it. Recommended read. – Rachel

● This book had great characters with a magpie taking centre stage. There were lots of funny moments (“Meow”) and a doom filled plot – this book had all the elements to make it memorable. However, there is one glaring problem: the confusingly offensive comparison between Tama and Māori when he is kidnapped. This aspect was easily overlooked while I was engrossed and sped along to the end but led to uncomfortable reflections afterwards. I totally loved this book but feel a bit let down. I’d love to know why the author included these elements at all, when they were not substantiated with further discourse. – Jo


Published 2022
Te Herenga Waka Victoria University Pres
352 pages

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: