Cover Image: The Axeman's Carnival

The Axeman's Carnival

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

My relationship with The Axeman’s Carnival was complicated. I was blown away by Catherine Chidgey’s writing; her poetic turn of phrase, her ability to get inside the head of a bird, Tama the talking magpie. However domestic violence and coercive control are at the heart of this story and I struggled to stay the course as the dramatic tension built. I’m glad I did though. The denouement was and wasn’t what I was expecting.

In the same vein as a child protoganist, an animal narrator can bear witness to the adult lives around it with a sense of wide-eyed innocence. But as anyone who has spent time with a magpie knows, they have some very serious attitude going on as well as the potential to be cheeky and cunning.

Chidgey gives us an insight, a believable and knowledgeable insight, into what a magpie might be thinking and saying. Her research included the books by Gisela Kaplan on the Australian Magpie and Bird Minds. As Richard Adams does with rabbits in Watership Down, Chidgey does with magpies in The Axeman’s Carnival. Tama has two voices if you like. His internal voice which is intelligent and observant and his ‘human’ voice which relies on mimicry. His inappropriate use of this is where Chidgey injects some humour into the story.

Tama is discovered on the ground underneath a pine tree as a chick by Marnie. She has recently had a miscarriage and cannot resist taking the chick home to nurture it. She names it after the Japanese Tamagotchi toy she had as a child, but shortens it to Tama. Before long Tama has learnt how to mimic some of her words. A brief excursion back to the wild, where he reconnects with his father and sister proves to Tama that he prefers life in the yolk-yellow house with Marnie…and the titular axeman Rob. He has won nine consecutive golden axes at the annual regional wood chop event. He plans to make it ten at this year’s carnival.

Tama does not trust Rob and we learn not to as well. Marnie on the otherhand continually makes excuses for him and learns to live with the unlivable. Rob is a smoker, a heavy drinker, and he loves to watch crime shows in the evenings. Everyday, casual violence is all around them – on the farm, in children’s games, on the tv and in the wild. The threat of serious domestic violence though, hangs over the yolk-yellow house like a black cloud.

The endearing, page-turning nature of this story rests entirely on Tama – and he is very endearing indeed! The fact that Rob does not agree says all you need to know about Rob. Both Marnie & Chidgey try to show us how Rob is a victim of circumstance too, with an abusive father, self-esteem issues, and the constant struggle of working a Te Waipounamu/Central Otago high-country sheep farm with its ensuing financial difficulties and battles against nature. Many other men can also face these obstacles in life, but they do not resort to violence. I guess that’s what I’m looking for these days in DV novels – that x factor thing that explains why some men do become violent. Rob ticks all the usual boxes including the charming public persona, the jealousy, controlling behaviours and lack of empathy behind closed doors and of course, the heavy drinking.

Despite the heavy subject matter, I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed The Axeman’s Carnival. I will certainly be on the look out for more books by Catherine Chidgey.

Was this review helpful?

The Axeman’s Carnival contains an interesting combination of factors that seems to work for many readers. The story is narrated by a witty magpie who was saved by a human and brought home where she could mother and rear it. The story takes place in a New Zealand rural community, especially life on a farm and in particular the owners strained marriage. It is the magpie’s perspective that makes this tale unique and thought provoking. As the blurb suggests, ‘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.’

Was this review helpful?

When I began reading The Axeman’s Carnival, I would have never expected the narrator to be an Australian magpie, in New Zealand (Magpies were introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s from Australia to control insects). Tama speaks to the reader and helps to tell the tale of a sheep farmer, Rob, and his wife, Marnie, on the South island of New Zealand. Rob is trying to grow a successful business and also train for the upcoming Axeman’s Carnival where he has a shot at a 10th consecutive win. Marie is trying to make do with what she has to create a home for them both, in the deteriorating house they live in. Marnie rescues a magpie chick and names it Tama (short for Tamagotchi) and creates an overnight internet sensation with Tama’s antics. In Tama, Marie finds a surrogate child, and confide her thoughts and feelings and violence she endures at Rob’s hand.
In First Nations cultures, the magpie can symbolise spirituality. They have one of the most beautiful and complex bird songs of any bird. They are cheeky, playful and very clever. They will get to know humans, and will trust, a the two in my photo have trusted me for several years. Tama becomes the most trustworthy thing in Marnie’s life: Tama’s narration is funny, its outbursts into the human conversation always lighten the darkest emotions and mimicry is on point. Catherine Chidgey has created such a dense story about magpies, woodchopping, the effects of domestic violence, the struggles of rural farming and diversification and how families can fall apart and survive. Tam’s magpie family are just as vocal to how Tama’s life is unfolding, with the constant warnings from his father bird about the evil of humans that Tama witnesses on a daily basis with Rob.
My heart was sad but full when I finished this book. Tama certainly won me over.

Was this review helpful?

Wow, I absolutely loved this book. It deals with a form of grief, in the loss of a baby during pregnancy, it deals with the hardships of farming in a season of drought and it deals with family violence.
The story is narrated by Tama (tamagotchi) a magpie who fell out of his nest when a baby and was discovered by Marnie, the farmers wife. Against hubbys (Rob) advice, Marnie takes the bird home and nurtures him to health. Tama is very inquisitive and also can remember faces and words. The baby’s room becomes his room and he uses the cat door to come and go as he pleases. Behind closed doors on some nights he hears thuds and yelps from the bedroom and next day sees bruises on Marnie’s body. He knows something is wrong.
Rob is a trophy winning axeman and is already looking to win his 10th straight title in a row.
They farm sheep and the lack of rain and poor feed crop have added to Robs worries, then a lot of his sheep are aborting their lambs. When Rob gets stressed he drinks, when he drinks he hits Marnie.
Marnie’s sister and her hubby live next door where they are successfully farming cherry trees. When her sister sees the little video clips of Tama that Marnie has posted, and her huge amass of followers she talks her into getting a publicist and make money off the magpie.
As they start to make money Robs demeanour improves but he is always a powder keg waiting to blow
It’s such a uniquely told story, I loved it.

#TheAxemansCarnival #NetGalley

Was this review helpful?

If you enjoy a book narrated by an animal well have I got a hot tip for you! The Axeman's Carnival by NZ author Catherine Chidgey is out next month and I think it will take a few people by surprise.

The book is set in New Zealand and centres on a baby magpie that falls from its nest. It is rescued by Marnie who lives on the farm with her husband Rob. She cares for the baby bird and names him Tama. Despite Rob's misgivings, Tama soon cements his place in the family and starts to speak "human". While what his speaks doesn't always make sense he can make his meaning plain. He still sometimes interacts with his magpie family who try to show him the wickedness of humans while he also watches how violently Rob behaves. All the while he feels more and more protective of Marnie.

In an unexpected turn of events, Marnie starts posting videos of Tama online and soon his popularity rises. This has implications for Marnie and Rob, especially as Rob is readying himself to compete in the local Axeman's Carnival.

I don't think I should try and explain much more than this. I invite you though to suspend your disbelief a little and immerse yourself in a story told solely from the point of view of a hand reared magpie. While this sounds preposterous it works so well. Tama is partly Marnie's child but partly the witness to the violence. His disconnected human words ring true while you are also invited into his thoughts. He mimics what he sees to excruciating effect.

This book is so much more than the title would have you believe. The wood chopping event depicted towards the end is the culmination of a character study of a very dysfunctional family. The bond between Marnie and Tama was beautiful to witness though and the descent into the final act was sadly satisfying. I really enjoyed the writing here. The author manages to combine serious topics with humour to great effect. And now I'm very excited to see what others think of The Axeman's Carnival. It's my first book by Catherine Chidgey but I'm quite sure it won't be my last.

Thanks to @netgalley and @allenandunwin for my #gifted copy. The Axeman's Carnival is out on 19 March.

Was this review helpful?

‘People tell bad stories about magpies.’

Central Otago, New Zealand. Marnie and her husband Rob run a struggling sheep farm. Rob is trying to make the farm profitable, while also training for his 10th consecutive Golden Axe at the forthcoming annual Axeman’s Carnival. Marnie has tried to decorate the decaying house with her handmade cushions, but they are both aware that other family members are doing much better.

A magpie chick is rescued by Marnie. She names the chick Tamagotchi, which is soon shortened to Tama. Rob says he will ring Tama’s neck if he keeps him awake, but Tama provides Marnie with both companionship and a sense of purpose.

Tama is the narrator of this book, and the story unfolds through his eyes. He learns to speak, and while he misses his magpie family (and does return to them briefly for a while), Marnie becomes the centre of his world. Marnie confides in Tama, and he sees for himself the violence in her marriage.

‘And I did not trust him and I was right not to trust him.’

Tama hides various items belonging to Rob under the bath where no one can find them. When Marnie catches him one day, she laughs and videos him. Yes, social media becomes a big part of this story. Tama has many followers: Marnie dresses him in different costumes, he mimics human speech, and his catchcry becomes ‘Don’t you dare’. Meanwhile, Rob continues to train for the Axeman’s Carnival. His personal best times are not as good as he wants, and he takes his frustration out on Marnie. And while Marnie’s despair leads her to call a talkback radio program, she stays with Rob. Of course, not everyone is enamoured of Tama’s role as a feathered influencer and danger lurks.

This is such a brilliant story. Tama is the perfect narrator: able to provide a bird’s eye view (sorry) of domestic violence, reporting what he sees without necessarily understanding the context. And he doesn’t need to: Marnie becomes the centre of his universe.

How does it end? You’ll need to read it for yourself.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Allen & Unwin for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Was this review helpful?

I would read Catherine Chidgey’s shopping list!!! What a completely unique, compulsively readable little gem. There are dark themes here but it’s done deftly, without a heavy hand, and the humour provides the balance.

What a brilliant narrator Tama is!! The voice is just right - somehow both poignant AND funny, and completely believable which I think is important with these stories. I was prepared to suspend my disbelief because I wanted to, because the writing and characters and story allowed me to.

My heart ached for Tama, and I honestly could not stop reading this. It has a distinctly New Zealand feel to it but I didn’t find that alienating, just a good part of the story.

Highly recommend!

Was this review helpful?

This book had such potential. I absolutely adore magpies but I had somehow overlooked the domestic violence aspect of the book before requesting this. I was unable to finish the story at this time however, I have recommended this to others with a few content warnings

Was this review helpful?

A domestic violence story set on a sheep station on the South Island of New Zealand. What makes this one different is that it’s narrated by a magpie, a magpie named Tama that has been raised by hand after falling from the nest and mimics human speech leading to a large vocabulary. The farm is struggling and Rob is one of those men who takes his problems out on his wife. Marnie makes excuses for him and spends much of her time turning Tama into an Internet sensation, and eventually a money spinner. There’s humour in the many interjections made by Tama into all sorts of conversations.
Unfortunately this didn’t really work for me, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that this is a wild animal narrating. There were far too many things that it couldn’t possibly understand. I think it would’ve worked better if the magpie narration was just for shorter portions of the book (an odd chapter here and there maybe). The story builds to quite an horrific ending after a wood chopping contest and this was probably the best part of the book. I’m disappointed as the last book I read by this author (Remote Sympathy) I thought was brilliant and there are many five star reviews for this one.

Was this review helpful?