Tally Stick: historical piece of wood scored across with notches for the items of an account and then spit into halves, each party keeping one.
I had been aware of the stack of Carl Nixon’s latest book every time I visited Paradox Books, a terrific bookstore just across the road from my home. I had a backlog of books to read, and was at the end of that pile when I decided it was time that I took The Tally Stick home. And was I pleased that I did!
Carl Nixon is a New Zealander, living in the South Island, and his connection to the land is a salient feature of this novel. He knows his country; its geography, its features – the difficult, treacherous terrain, the bush, the rivers. From the opening scene we become tangled in that landscape as a car leaves the road in wet dangerous conditions and falls through the bush, carrying inside the Chamberlain family, fresh from England. My heart thumps as I read …’the car hung in the air for a fraction–of a fraction–of a moment, Very soon the children would begin to fall. Towards the tops of the trees. Towards the headlong water rushing between the boulders …’
Nixon achieves what every writer hopes to do: grab the reader’s attention and compel them to keep turning the pages. From the first page, I was hooked, reading, not wanting to stop. It is a frightening start, the writing suspenseful; the father’s thoughts race as he plunges towards his oblivion, his wife Julia beside him, baby cocooned at her feet, the other three children asleep in the back. It is the 4th of April 1978.
The police have to inform relatives in England that their family had gone missing after just five days in New Zealand. There has been no sign of the car, or children following the crash.
The narrative jumps ahead to England on the 14th of November 2010 and we meet Suzanne, Julia’s sister, who has been contacted by the New Zealand High Commission. Remains of her nephew Maurice have been found near Bruce Bay on the West Coast beneath a cliff. Suzanne has been to New Zealand many times over the years and made fruitless searches for her family, resigned to the realisation she may never know their fate. This news is shattering.
The aunt’s biggest shock comes nine weeks later, when Maurice’s remains are flown to England. The findings were that he had fallen from a cliff, sustained many fractures, and that he had been seventeen or eighteen years old, when he was just a boy at the time of the crash. Several packages come with him. These contain a piece of wood with notches scored down each side, John Chamberlain’s Rolex watch, in unworkable condition, a worn, stiff dog’s collar, and a roll of money.
Suzanne never discovers what happened to her family. But the reader does.
Carl Nixon has written several novels, short stories and plays, and many several awards and Fellowships. The most recent was The Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship where he worked on the Tally Stick.
Tally Stick was first published by Penguin Random House New Zealand 2020