It is the late 1970s New Zealand, a car goes off the road into the dense forest, slipping “between the trunks like a blade”, and plummeting into the river below. Rain takes all traces away. In the car is a newly arrived family from England, taking a West Coast drive before the father takes up his new job in Wellington in two weeks’ time. Twenty-three years later the body of the eldest child, Maurice, is found, but his skeleton shows he lived for four years after the family’s disappearance. His father’s watch, a leather dog collar, a large amount of money, and a wooden tally stick have been found with his remains. Where was Maurice for those four years? And what happened to his parents and the other three children, baby Emma, younger brother Tommy, and twelve-year-old Katherine?
It is almost impossible to write a detailed review of The tally stick without ruining the plot. It is a compelling mystery, the effectiveness of which depends on the reader not knowing anything of what is going to happen. The story is told from multiple timelines and points of view, yet it is well structured and the different narratives weave around each other. We see through the eyes of some of the surviving children, as well as through those of their Aunt Suzanne, both when she makes four trips to New Zealand early on, trying to find her sister and her sister’s family, and then years later when she manages the repatriation of her nephew’s remains.
The tally stick is about so many things, and many of them link to the meaning of the stick – a record of unpaid debts. It raises the question of what, if anything, people owe each other, what must be earned and what should be freely given. It is about what you owe your family, at what point you may give up on them, follow your own path and disassociate from them. And if connections last through the years, what are you connected to? How do people change in different environments?
Maurice resists change, he is judgemental, seeing people who are different as stupid and “not civilised”, he says long words to himself to prove his superiority, he makes shrines to vengeance. Katherine is a more attractive character, always seeing the goodness in people, paying due respect to the dead and the damaged. Her eyesight is weak, and she sees spirits in the forest, reads meaning into the sightings of birds, and she makes shrines to the benevolent deities. She tries to pray but her words “seemed more likely to be heard by God when you said them in London.” We see Katherine change the most, as her name diminishes: Katherine, Kate, Kat.
There are other characters the car crash survivors encounter, and they are ambiguous. We suspect them and fear them, but eventually we understand them, to a degree. The colonial experience is somewhat echoed, by the survivors encountering people who have been shaped by a completely different world. And in there being those that adjust and those that can’t, but who are therefore changed in a darker way. Those from the UK often must ask for clarification, what is a Crunchie, what are the wop-wops?
The writing in The tally stick is evocative, you can smell the native bush, see the birds, feel the soggy forest floor. There is much that the reader must fill in for themselves. It is a read full of conflict, violence, and dread, but there is also beauty and kindness, and the switching back and forth gives it an inevitability that puts the characters in the frame of a morality play. I am not going to say anything else about the story – you will have to, and should, read it yourself.