Deep in the wops, three children are caught in a pastoral New Zealand nightmare.
The Tally Stick begins like a waking dream, a horrifying free fall where time stretches out before snapping sickeningly back into place.
The car containing the four sleeping children left the earth …
It’s April 1978. It’s dark, and the weather is dire, and the West Coast road is treacherous, and a rental car carrying an English family who’ve been in the country mere days goes sliding off the edge into the unknown. No one knows where they are. It will be weeks before someone realises that they’ve gone missing, and no evidence of them will be found – not then, anyway.
It reminds me of the most vivid nightmare I’ve had in years, in which my own car spills off one of the curving roads that trace Banks Peninsula, then bounces off a bluff, with enough time for me to think with perfect lucidity this is what it is like to know you are going to die. Nixon’s opening paragraphs capture the stillness, the speed, the clarity of this horror, before punching us back into reality.
From here, the novel is taut and well-plotted, balancing a mounting sense of dread with unexpected payoffs, and dancing across two parallel storylines.
In the past, the Chamberlain family smashes into a river at the bottom of a ravine. Three children – Maurice, Katherine, and little Tommy – escape the wreck before it floods (more nightmare fuel), although their parents and baby sister are dead. They are left cold, alone and injured, attacked by sandflies, and with nothing more than a handful of biscuits and sweets between them.
In 2010, their Aunt Suzanne gets a call that Maurice’s remains have been found on a remote West Coast beach. Bafflingly, it’s clear he’d lived for at least four years after the family’s disappearance. With his bones are his father’s watch, some balled up cash, and a tally stick – a bit of wood, one half of a whole, scored with notches that quantify some sort of debt.
It would be rude to illustrate plot further, as much of the experience of the book rests on us fearing for the children, and wondering, like Suzanne, what the hell actually happened. The action doglegs in often unexpected but satisfying ways. There’s a comment, at one point, that New Zealand doesn’t have dangerous animals, the unspoken inference for the reader being that people have not been included in this summation. I admit I spent a bit of time wondering if this was going to end up like Aussie horror Wolf Creek. What is important, though, is that Katherine, Maurice and Tommy find themselves somewhere unexpected. They must find ways to adapt to their new environment and their new identities, in a way that troubles and expands their understanding of family.
We switch between the children’s perspectives. Maurice, at 13 the eldest, is congenitally resentful and possessive, his father’s son, something of a bully. He balks at his new situation, looking for ways to lash out or take revenge against everything from his siblings, to the eels that gobbled up his dead parents. Katherine, slightly younger, is resourceful, clever and kind. On the first night sleeping rough she finds solace in fireflies – “glowing pinpricks, faint, almost bluish” – and as the story progresses, her perspectives and senses unfurl. Nixon illustrates, in beautiful detail, a rich sense of environment, sketching out the land, water, flora and birdlife. “Welcome to paradise,” we hear at one point, perhaps mocking, perhaps not. Elsewhere, the wonderful phrase “The West Coast had air you could roll around in your mouth” and, watching a kingfisher, “She glimpsed a gas-flame flash of iridescent blue as it passed through the sunlight … A moment later the colours that were the bird reappeared on the same branch, with movement that may have been a flopping cockabully in its beak.” Over time Katherine learns the local names for the things around her and builds herself something of a pantheon – a way of encountering and living within the complexity of the non-human world that weaves an idiosyncratic spirituality with a grounded understanding of the here and now.
The tension between the two siblings feeds the novel’s conflicts, and comes to speak of the way visitors – settlers – might understand environment as something capacious that demands respect and reciprocity, or something hostile and empty in need of suppression. I like that the novel tests this Eurocentric notion of “the wild”, and that it clearly looks to other dominant forms of narrative, not least the ambivalence of New Zealand Gothic. But it challenges our expectations of genre, and in doing so engages with thorny questions about the nature of our relationships with one another.
In this sense, the titular tally stick is really a McGuffin. Sure, it has a literal purpose at one stage. It’s a good hook, and its initial appearance is one of many oh shit, what now moments in the plotting. But it comes to stand in for bigger questions about reciprocity and obligation that act as the marrow of the story. What do we owe the people around us, in a literal sense? What obligations do we also have for kin, for the living, and for the dead? How are families formed, and what do they do for each other? There are the obvious moments of familial duty: Katherine builds a small cairn for her dead baby sister. Suzanne, in the past, does her best to find her missing sister, and in the present, she attends to Maurice’s remains with dignity and respect. More broadly, the book is a tangle of competing accountabilities and obligations, some of which sit deep within ethically shadowy spaces. Duty might be doling out, or suffering through, a brutal physical hiding, or it might manifest as the tender, everyday care a sister shows in toileting her injured, incontinent brother. It asks what love might look like.
All elements of suspense, genre and environment aside, this exploration of reciprocity illustrates how The Tally Stick is invested in looking at identity in post-colonial Aotearoa, with gestures towards England then and now. It pokes around in the spaces between European, (neo)coloniser, Pākehā, settler, “émigré”, privileged insider and cultural outsider, even if there’s still a heavy whiff of the Romantic about Katherine’s rich encounters with the birds and the bush, which sometimes stray into magical realism.
This is flagged early, repeatedly, in the opening sequences. There’s the English father’s job as an executive for a multinational extractive industry, his sniffy attitude towards his new short-term home, and his lethal dismissiveness towards warnings about weather and geography. There’s the ironic image of a bloated copy of Five Go Off to Camp bobbing in the river with the mangled car. We hear about the children’s upper middle-class upbringing, all piano lessons, Kensington Gardens, holidays to France, please and thank you.
But it’s also there in the way that present-day Aunt Suzanne makes note, quizzically, of the darkness of her Ethiopian-born, adopted grandchildren’s skin. She’s not quite impugning their Britishness – if anything, she’s addressing her own surprise that multiculturalism is more than a visit to the local Greek restaurant – but it’s not far off. It’s uncomfortable for both her and the reader, not the blunt denaturalisation of her whiteness but her curious objectification of their blackness.
They’d been so much blacker than she’d thought they would be. That sounded terrible, she knew, but their colour had thrown her off kilter for a long time. Every time she saw them, she was startled all over again. She’d found herself taking every opportunity to touch their skin …
Suzanne’s unshakeable internalised Englishness, a ragged empire in mind if not in practice, also prevents her from recognising what might be important information about the fate of her family.
So, what forms of living and knowledge might open up for those who are able to shake this paternalistic point of view? Allen Curnow’s poem about the moa in Canterbury Museum – over-quoted, sorry, but I’m doing it again now like a hack – famously finishes “Not I, some child born in a marvellous year / Will learn the trick of standing upright here”. I thought about this couplet a lot while reading, not necessarily in terms of literature in Aotearoa New Zealand itself, although this book clearly explores complexities of identity and adaptation in ways that have become more nuanced over time. Rather, I thought of how Katherine, Maurice and Tommy try to find their feet after their unexpected dislocation, after they are ripped off course physically and psychologically, all ideas of home, family and selfhood tipped on their heads.
It’s also possible I’m predisposed towards such a reading, as I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be tangata tiriti, too. I’ve been researching my mihi as the Ōtautahi-born child of white immigrants who met in Aotearoa. From what I can glean historically my various family lines – American, English, Polish – didn’t stay put for too long in any one place. My parents’ respective journeys here were internationally circuitous, and buffeted by the forces of globalisation, war, oppression, colonisation, expansionism, and trade. Unpacking the implications of arrival, adaptation and reciprocity in Aotearoa, in the here and now, is tricky business for tauiwi. It’s tricky for these characters too.
I appreciate, then, that the book retains a degree of ambivalence about cultural identities of some key characters. It acts as a small case study of what it means to adapt to your environment, bar the easy reading that it’s better to be open-hearted and humble than arrogant, closed-minded, and fixated on enemies, real or imagined. Although poor Maurice comes to grip onto the tally stick as cold evidence of the things that have happened to him after the death of his parents – some of them legitimately terrible – Nixon’s satisfying book suggests that the myriad and sometimes shifting obligations we have to one another, as well as the things that we specifically owe, aren’t mere transactions. Instead, they form the meat and sinew of our relationships, however tangled those relationships may be. To pretend otherwise will leave you alone, or, in the case of Mo, royally screwed.