The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey – 2022

Set on a remote Central Otago sheep station, The Axeman’s Carnival is a dark tale of violence and cruelty. The story unfolds in a menacing way – with the reader knowing bad things are coming and wishing they could get the potential victims out of danger. You know the version of the story you are reading is the true one – there is a totally reliable narrator, a magpie called Tama.

Tama, short for Tamagotchi, falls out of his nest as a young fledgling. Marnie picks him up and takes him home, much to the annoyance of her husband Rob. Marnie makes a home for Tama, who proves to have a facility for languages. And the stage is set. Set for a story not just about the casual cruelty of routine farming practices, pest control, and keeping wild animals as pets – but the appalling blokeish expectations of the rural male. “The power of these men! You wouldn’t want to get on their bad side, that’s for sure.”

Rob, a champion axeman, is anxious about the upcoming annual competition, and is struggling with the sheep station during drought and at a time of plummeting demand. Their house is disintegrating, and their marriage endangered by Rob’s irrational jealousy – and not just of Tama, of any guy around – his love is one of ownership. “All our debt – sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe”, Rob blames his situation on anyone but himself, and he’s not one to take advice. Advice is readily available from Marnie’s sister Ange and her husband Nick, who run a successful cherry operation on the next property.

Ange and Nick also see the marketing potential in Tama – which finally gets Rob’s attention. Tama is doubtful when told, but an online marketing expert flies down from Auckland, and Whammo! “Everywhere. All over the world. I’m a meme, I’m a gif. I’m trending. I’m an influencer” – enter the nasty violence that grows in online communities, and those whose animals-rights ideologies drive them to action – often creating the very hurt they intend to liberate animals from.

The plotting of The Axeman’s Carnival leads to a startling climax, prefigured in the text: “So, I suppose that everything that happened afterwards was my fault”; “Perhaps I should have questioned it. I don’t suppose it matters now.” Like Tama, who dreams of living alone with Marnie, the reader wants the best for her. She is struggling with having had a miscarriage, and is fiercely loyal to Rob, which is sinister behaviour that no one around Marnie sees through. You find out what has happened to Marnie, and you get glimpses of her in happier times, when she chats with Ange or they practice their musical piece for the carnival.

Tama is surrounded by voices, those around him, those on the television, those of dead relatives, and those still alive. He is torn between his love for Marnie and the comforts of her home, and his own family and being free to be a magpie. His comments are constant, random, inappropriate, usually apposite, and very funny. His knowledge of the world outside of the farm is gleaned from the lurid cop shows Rob likes, and when flying over the local town he is puzzled not to see “traffic backed up all the way to Sunset”.

The Axeman’s Carnival is disturbing, but despite it’s dark and serious themes, it is funny and engaging. You really care about what is happening, or rather what is going to happen, which makes it a gripping read. Quite genius really.

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