The Tally Stick, by Carl Nixon

Some of the best works of imagination, like Carl Nixon’s latest novel, make you believe that events that would be outlandish or bizarre if met in real life are merely inevitable. The strange becomes realistic.

It takes a talented writer to bring this about. Among others, Dickens is well known for excelling at this. (Also like Dickens, I get the impression from this book, and his earlier Settlers’ Creek, that Nixon knows his people and his settings intimately, but I’ll stop with the Dickens comparisons now!)

In 1978, the entire Chamberlain family – a mother, a father and four children – go missing on New Zealand’s remote West Coast. The car they hired when they arrived from the UK a few days beforehand is never found. In 2010, the remains of one of the children turns up, and testing of the bones shows that he had lived for four years after the family had disappeared.

It’s a gripping mystery on one level. The multiple time lines let us see the experiences of those who survived as well as the events of 2010. How do they merge together? How did this child live for four years, and what happened to the rest of his family?

Maurice, Katherine and Tommy are the three oldest children, ripped from a life of comfortable middle-class London life and dumped in the New Zealand wilderness. Who they meet, how they are treated, and how they deal with their new life is an excellent story as we follow them over several years. This is the storyline I alluded to above as outlandish, and yet completely natural in Nixon’s telling of it.

I particularly liked the way the children develop different responses to the situation they find themselves in. While loyal to each other, the natural conflict of their differing personalities is well done – you can see what drives each sibling to the actions they eventually take. Each character’s story has a tension that will hold you.

In the 2010 timeline we are introduced to Suzanne, sister to Mrs Chamberlain. It transpires she has made four trips from her UK home to New Zealand, scouring the roads, the creeks and the countryside for any information that might lead her to understand what happened to her family. Finally, on her final trip in 1983, there’s a report of someone that could be her niece Katherine. What will she find at the end of this trail?

The ending of this timeline was perhaps the only part of the story that failed to satisfy, as the 2010 events mean we know a significant amount about what Suzanne’s 1983 search will (or will not) reveal. There’s nothing wrong with the way Nixon does this, and there’s some decent tension that still arises from it, but it just felt like a bit of a let-down to me.

That’s my only quibble with this thoroughly absorbing novel. Otherwise, it’s a book you’ll be happy to lose yourself in. There is someone in your family you will want to buy it for as a Christmas present, but make sure it’s someone who lives close by so you can borrow it back off them…

Published by gregbrook

Books. I read them, I write them, I read about them and I write about them.

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