Monday 16 January 2023

Catherine Chidgey, The Axeman's Carnival

Is The Axeman's Carnival the great New Zealand novel? I know it's not a question we ask but for me - Pākehā New Zealand, child and grandchild and great-grandchild of farmers - maybe it is.

One review I read located The Axeman's Carnival in the canon of literature written from an animal's perspective, which had me puzzled. Watership Down, White Fang, Charlotte's Web, Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-Pig (all books I adored as a kid / teen) and Ernest Thompson Seton's The Biography of a Grizzly (the very first book I remember having an emotional reaction to) are all told in the third person. Try as I might, I cannot think of any other adult novel with an animal first-person narrator apart from Anna Sewell's Black Beauty:

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master's house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.  
While I was young I lived upon my mother's milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.

The Axeman's Carnival also opens from first memories, first sensations, with Chidgey's incantatory tone sucking you straight into the not-human world:

A long long time ago, when I was  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 pillowed palm belongs to Marnie, wife of Rob, the young farming couple trying to force a living from the ungiving landscape of a Central Otago sheep station. On the block of land next to them is the cherry orchard owned by Marnie's sister Ange, her husband Nick, with their new baby and the sisters' acid-tongued mother Barbara. 

Marnie raises the fallen chick, who she names Tamagotchi (Tama for short). From a box pierced with airholes in the laundry, Tama graduates to Marnie and Rob's own empty nest, the vacant nursery that sits potently in the centre of the foundering old villa, of their marriage, and of the story that Chidgey unwinds. 

Tama lives in both world, absorbing all the language of his human household (song lyrics, Marnie's endearments, farm talk, talkback radio callers, the dialogue from the crime shows Rob watches on the telly to unwind) and listening to his original family too:

From the windowsill I could see my flock in the distance, and hear them, and I tried to tell which birds were my mother and father: little bits of black and white, dark and light, too far away. One day I thought I heard them singing for their lost chick, but every family lost half their chicks, and all parents sang for them, and the voices might have been the voices of of someone else's parents.

While Marnie falls for Tama, for Rob he becomes another target for the seething resentment that lies under his skin at all times. Pressured, Marnie releases Tama back to his family, and his father swoops in to reclaim him - There is my son. My son has come back from the dead. He fell from the nest and he did not die. My son is alive. Come to me. Come come come.

So Tama is brought back into the nest: the emptier nest now, his brothers and his mother both gone - death by car, death by cold. His father raises him and his sister, the surviving nestlings, teaches them to stab grubs in the ground, to wipe the sting from a wasp, to smash snails from their shells. 

I learned how the wild worked: where to take shelter, and what voice the adults used when another flock tried to invade. I learned to behave. I learned my place. I learned to leap octaves and to sing two notes at once.

But Tama "belonged and did not belong, and I was bird and not-bird". He gazes down on the yolk-yellow house he had been raised in. And he feels the pull of Marnie, his mother, his only mother: he choses to return to her. And from his bird throat he brings forth the first of his human words: her name.

Changeling, foundling, child-narrator, jester: Tama is our eyes and ears and voice throughout The Axeman's Carnival. Two storylines intertwine: Tama's rapidly growing grasp of English and eventual social media stardom (from a few casual posts on Twitter of Tama's cute outfits and catch-phrases springs a cottage industry of merch and sponsorship opportunities), alongside Rob's pursuit of his tenth golden axe at that year's woodchopping competition. These stories are played out across a fraying marriage, the harsh life of farmers, the intensity of at once living too close to your family and being surrounded by empty space but - for Marnie - having little space or safety of your own. Through this Chidgey weaves the drama of Tama's original family: his dominating and cold-hearted father, his curious and selfish sister, his father's next set of nestlings, better than those who preceded them.

Although the story is often troubled (Rob is jealous, suspicious, and free with his hands when he's had too much to drink) Chidgey is also frequently hilarious. Tama as narrator reports to us what he sees and hears, without judgement or interpretation, whether that's Barbara's sniping or the adulation of the foreign tourists who start searching out the farm to meet their Twitter crush. It's a truly rollicking story, both High Country gothic and pop-culture parody. 

But what I found myself appreciating most about The Axeman's Carnival - perhaps enhanced by reading the book whilst staying in rural Hawkes Bay, in a house on dry hillside under a stand of pines occupied by its own magpie families - was the portrait of farming life, so familiar to my ear even though I've not lived on the farm since I was 18.

The book is a striking and evocative portrait of the pressures and isolation of farming life, and I found myself following Rob in the book with a welling of empathy for all those farming men I've ever known. Victim to the weather, to the regulators, to those buggers in the city. Falling meat prices, falling wool prices, threat of drought: Rob is watching his own life play out in the same worn tracks as those of his parents, farming the same resistant land, searching for rain, searching for a break on the global markets, the sheer unfairness of busting a gut from before dawn to after dark every day of the year and still living on a knife's edge of liquid cash. The hardness this breeds, the inarticulate resentment of a life that feels so out of your control, the shackling responsibility for this bloody piece of land, and yes: the love and the fierce pride also. 

There are a couple of set pieces which are pitch perfect to my ear. There's the description of docking season, when lambs' tails are severed with a cauterising iron, rubber bands are applied to testicles to  strangulate the blood supply until they drop off (we used bands on the lambs' tails too, and the image of lambs bucking on the ground then scrambling to their feet, spronking off in uneven leaps and bounds, bawling for their mothers, is still so vivid in my mind). Not just the work, but the latent anger at townies and their privileged obliviousness:

"And now the overseas supermarkets are complaining about the meat." 

"What's wrong with it?" said Ange.

"Nothing," said Rob. "Nothing's wrong with it. But their customers have decided they're a bit upset about tailing."

"They don't want to buy meat from docked animals," said Marnie.

"Why on earth not?" said Barbara.

"Apparently it's cruel," said Rob. "Apparently we're monsters. They'd prefer to eat lambs slaughtered with their tails still attached."

Barbara laughed. "Ludicrous!"

"There's a lot of pressure," said Marnie.

"well," said Nick, "it's important to listen to the voice of the consumer."

"You know what's cruel?" said Rob. "Leaving a lamb with a tail so long it gets caked in shit, and then the blowflies come and lay their eggs, and then the maggots hatch and eat the animal alive."

Barbara shuddered, pushed away her bread roll.

"Sorry," he said. "It gets me worked up."

And also the descriptions of the work and care of lambing season, where paddocks are patrolled, small hot bodies fished slithering and steaming from their mother's vulvas, prolapsed uteruses pushed back in and secured with plastic anchors, motherless lambs brought home, warmed in front of the fire, fed by hand. In my house they were kept in cardboard boxes or the wood basket, until they were big enough to be moved to the crate in the basement (once home also to a litter of piglets whose murderous mother kept squashing them). Or the creation of more changelings - dead lambs skinned, then the crinkled yellow jackets of their hides tied around the bodies of orphaned lambs, to fool the bereaved ewe through smell and taste to mother them on. (Who wouldn't take a second chance, if they could make themselves believe in it?)

Another set piece comes late in the book, a crowd of men yelling as Ange and Marnie take to the stage to perform in a kind of talent show during the woodchopping competition:

But the men were in full voice now, calling, carolling. 'I like your dresses - they'd look awesome on my bedroom floor. Wanna see my baby elephant? Wanna see my hairy canary? I've got some wood for you, girls. Hey! I said I've got some wood for you! My name's Justin - remember that so you can scream it later. How do you like your meat? Hey girls! Girls! What's your favourite - standing or underhand? Nice legs, what time do they open? Are you free tonight, or will it cost me?

"Show us where the axe hit ya" was a favoured catch-phrase of my teenage years. And yet still, "Nice legs, what time do they open?" made me giggle.

As other reviewers have noted, the Axeman's Carnival sits within New Zealand's tradition of the cinema of unease, that gothic haunting of the settler imagination. It's full of symbol and threat and tension. But the utterly unique voice of Tama, his two-spirit storytelling: this is brilliantly developed and delivered, with a depth of reality that a film could never give you. One of the greatest works of storytelling I've read in such a long time, effortless and memorable. 

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