The Tally Stick, Carl Nixon
In the middle of reading this novel an Antiques Roadshow episode popped up that included an old tally stick, bought in by an elderly gentleman who had kept it in a drawer for many years. Very useful and timely to be reminded that they were used as an aid to memory, often for financial or legal transactions, to keep track of debts. In the case of the novel THE TALLY STICK, one is found, at the same time as the remains of the eldest Chamberlain child, discovered in a remote part of New Zealand's West Coast. The entire Chamberlain family had arrived in New Zealand from Britain, and within days, vanished. The problem with the discovery of Maurice's remains is that the skeleton indicates he died, four years older, than when he disappeared. What happened to him in those intervening years, and what became of the rest of the family is something his aunt, Suzanne, his mother's sister, would dearly like to know.
Starting out in 1978, John Chamberlain, his wife Julia and their 4 children Maurice, Katherine, Tommy and Emma arrive in New Zealand with a few weeks to spare before John starts a new job. A driving holiday takes them down a remote stretch of road in dreadful weather, resulting in the car going off the edge of a cliff, into the river below. The opening sequences of this novel will be very shocking for some readers, as the car accident kills John, Julia and baby Emma outright, and injures the remaining 3 very young children, who are then left to try to survive, and find help in such a remote area, with no evidence left behind that their car had even been on the road.
From here on, what happens to those kids, and how they survive is harrowing and will be confronting reading for some. There's very little good news in this story, right down to the ongoing search by Suzanne for her family. Her shock and confusion when it takes until 2010 for Maurice's remains to be found and identified, her distress when she pieces together parts of the story that she'd been closer to finding out than she ever realised. Where the other two children are, what happened to all of them focuses in on the idea of subjugation and survival, addressing some confrontational moral questions, which could, frankly, be very triggering and quite distressing.
With slow-burning, very deliberate pacing, THE TALLY STICK isn't easy reading by any means, although it is handled with as much sensitivity as you could bring to a story of such family tragedy. What happened to the three remaining children isn't the easiest scenario to address, and the likely meaning of the tally stick found at the same time as Maurice's body is a part of the mystery as well. Nothing in the years between 1978 and 2010 has been easy for any of this family, and a lot has happened. It's cleverly structured, intricate and considered, told from multiple viewpoints and in multiple timelines, the switching aspects made easy for the reader to follow.
THE TALLY STICK is a mystery more than a crime novel, all about consequences and fate. Not the easiest read in the world it's one of those books that I'd happily recommend readers have a look at - with a warning that it's going to be memorable, enthralling and very discomforting, but you're unlikely to ever want to call it straight-forward or easy reading.
A compulsive and chilling novel about subjugation, survival and the meaning of family.
Up on the highway, the only evidence that the Chamberlains had ever been there was two smeared tyre tracks in the mud leading into the almost undamaged screen of bushes and trees. No other cars passed that way until after dawn. By that time the tracks had been washed away by the heavy rain . . . It was a magic trick. After being in the country for only five days, the Chamberlain family had vanished into the air. The date was 4 April 1978.
In 2010 the remains of the eldest Chamberlain child have been discovered in a remote part of the West Coast, showing he lived for four years after the family disappeared. Found alongside him are his father’s watch and what turns out to be a tally stick, a piece of wood scored across, marking items of debt.
How had he survived and then died? Where was the rest of his family? And what is the meaning of the tally stick?