The Tally Stick


Lost in the wilderness: subjugation, survival, and the meaning of family

Up on the highway, the only evidence that the Chamberlains had ever been there was two smeared tire tracks in the mud leading into an 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. After being in New Zealand for only five days, the English Chamberlain family had vanished into thin air. The date was 4 April 1978. In 2010 the remains of the eldest child are 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 scored wood marking items of debt. How had he survived and then died in such a way? Where is the rest of the family? And what is the meaning of the tally stick?

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Publication date

20 January 2022




Carl Nixon

Carl Nixon was born in Christchurch in 1967 and is one of New Zealand’s leading authors. His books have regularly appeared on New Zealand’s bestselling fiction lists … Read more

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you shocked by the book’s opening?
  2. Did you find the first-person perspective way of rendering the event convincing?
  3. What did you learn about the parents in that time?
  4. What determined the differences between Katherine’s and Maurice’s reactions to the new situation they found themselves in? Was it age, gender, something else?
  5. Who did you identify with more? Was it because you would have behaved the same?
  6. What should the children have done differently?
  7. What emotions did you feel while reading this novel? Was there one overriding emotion that stayed with you throughout or did you feel a mixture of things?
  8. How did you feel towards Peters? Was there anything redeemable about his character?
  9. And how did you feel about Martha? Was there anything redeemable about her?
  10. How much do you think Martha was involved in the decision-making at the farm? Do you think she had much power?
  11. Was Martha in some ways worse than Peters?
  12. How did you feel toward Suzanne? What did her story add to the stories of the children?
  13. In what way did Suzanne’s chapters help to frame the main narrative?
  14. Was there anything Suzanne could have or should have done differently?
  15. Was the story believable?
  16. How did you feel about Kat’s development as the book progressed?
  17. Do you think the book had in some ways a happy ending?
  18. What role did the landscape play in the novel? Did you feel drawn, circumstances aside, to that way of living? Did you feel drawn to New Zealand?

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Praise for The Tally Stick

“Nixon’s prose is arresting … which generates consistent appeal for the thrilling and emotionally nuanced story. This is electrifying.”
Publishers Weekly, *starred review*

“From its first sentences, The Tally Stick by Carl Nixon swept me up and carried me away to a world I never knew and a place I’ve never been: New Zealand’s West Coast, a rough and rugged place where after just five days in the country the Chamberlain family completely disappears. But more than the impeccably described landscape, it’s the complicated moral choices the characters must confront that makes this novel so much more than a gripping story of loss and survival. Richly drawn, intensely atmospheric, and absolutely stunning, I loved this book!”
KAREN DIONNE, author of the #1 international bestseller The Marsh King’s Daughter and The Wicked Sister

“There’s a steady relentlessness to the action in the bent fairy tale of Carl Nixon’s fourth novel … Nixon sketches in aspects of his characters’ lives deftly.”

“The writing in The Tally Stick is evocative, you can smell the native bush, see the birds, feel the soggy forest floor. There is much that the reader must fill in for themselves. It is a read full of conflict, violence, and dread, but there is also beauty and kindness, and the switching back and forth gives it an inevitability that puts the characters in the frame of a morality play.”
ALYSON BAKER, Nelson Public Libraries

“Carl Nixon is one of my favorite New Zealand writers. I love his stuff … This latest novel is very cinematic … I would place it firmly amongst what’s called a literature of unease … very ominous, very foreboding, it’s all about the atmosphere … The prose also does a really interesting thing with time, in that it lingers over instance … The writing is very powerful.”
Radio New Zealand

“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.”
The Spinoff

The Tally Stick​ is an efficient, gripping story, a Kiwi Gothic thriller that is confidently and economically told. It is probably Nixon’s strongest novel.”
PHILIP MATTHEWS, Academy of New Zealand Literature

The Tally Stick unravels a yarn of acceptance, denial, love and resentment. There are many subtle investigations into why people behave as they do, and how simple but necessary choices affect everything. Every event and every conversation is essential to the plot with the things left unsaid and unexplained as the most powerful moments that will leave the reader thinking about the moral rights and wrongs of this story for some time to come. This is the best kind of novel: complex, contemplative, upsetting, written with an ease and flow that makes it a compelling read.”
LOUISE WARD, Wardini Books

The Tally Stick is a novel of character and edge-of-the-seat suspense, with the landscape and weather of the West Coast of New Zealand given a prominent role.”
Weekend Herald


Praise for The Virgin and the Whale

“He’s a contender, Carl Nixon. He’s an acclaimed playwright, has won significant awards for his short stories and he’s come close with his novels, too. This book offers us fragmentary insights into the way our national memory constructs our national identity. With all that self-consciousness going on, The Virgin and the Whale is an ambitious project. But Nixon is no mere fashion victim. This is an intelligently constructed novel and, best of all, a beautifully told story.”
NZ Herald

“This novel is wonderfully accomplished, beautifully told and a delight to engage with.”
NZ Listener

“This story is about battles of wills and ideologies as well as the healing power of love. Yet Nixon’s novel is also, and equally, about the healing properties of storytelling itself. Above all, those who can listen to a story and hear the surface and subtexts are upheld over those whose minds are not open to the riches and alternative ways of thinking that stories can bring. Nixon brings home to us why literature is highly placed among the humanities.”
Otago Daily Times

“It is a story which is powerful, yet gentle. It is evocative and poignant. But most of all it is beautifully written and clever and kept me hooked to the last.”
Timaru Herald

“I was literally hooked from the first eight words—just wonderful, storytelling at its most sublime. I’m going to do the unheard of for me and turn around and read it again.”
Afternoons on Radio New Zealand

“Places Nixon firmly as one of our leading writers—complex narrative, beautiful prose and compelling characters make this book absolutely sing.”
Radio New Zealand

“All lovers of Christchurch should read this book. It is as gripping and well written as Carl Nixon’s first two novels.”
The Press


Praise for Rocking Horse Road

“Intensely atmospheric, it strongly evokes 1980s New Zealand—diaries, summer, the beach, teenage boredom and sexual yearning—Rocking Horse Road is also a powerful exploration of maleness, and of grief and the impossibility of articulating grief.”
The Dominion Post

“The whodunit is just a small part of what makes this book such a joy to read.”
Australian Women’s Weekly

“This is a book of illusions, one of those works crafted by a magician, skilled at subtly directing your attention away from the real story until it’s too late and you’re suddenly given a whole new picture of all that has gone before. Told in a laconic, almost languid way, never missing a beat, nor the opportunity to quietly set you up for what’s coming, the book is gripping and forthright—the book, which started as a short story, never feels forced or stretched. It is detailed and full and written with such attention and verve that it feels that it is the right length.”
The Press

“Carl Nixon has skillfully recreated provincial 1980s New Zealand—I hope Nixon writes many more novels.”
Herald on Sunday

“I enjoyed Carl Nixon’s short stories, so dived into this novel eagerly, and it didn’t let me down—Nixon’s writing conjures vivid pictures of that place and period, allowing the reader to step back into a familiar New Zealand of 27 years ago. While the timing of the story is a growing and turning point for the boys involved, it is also a similar point for the country as a whole. More than that, as the boys grow into men their fixation on the murder remains. To me the book also hints at a subconscious longing in us all for a time when things seemed simpler and more cohesive.”
Waikato Times

“Nixon captures well the calculus of suspicion in this type of murder—its circling and descent: the way its mass builds around a man before, with cruel fickleness, it moves on to menace someone else. This, and the parallel he offers between the boys’ trapping and killing of a dog and their revenge on a young ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ teacher, show Nixon to be a writer of talent.”
Sunday Star-Times

“Nixon’s teenage voice never loses character, and he has perfectly realized the burning emotion and slightly befuddled sense of discovery of the teenage boys—it would be a crime if it doesn’t make it on to the reading lists for senior English classes throughout the country.”
Nelson Mail

“Nixon writes beautifully. He gets the style and timbre of the teenagers just right. He uses their language. Something easy is ‘a piece of piss,’ a lazy-training member of the 1st XV ‘needs a fire lit under his arse.’ Is there anyone who’s played rugby at any level in New Zealand who hasn’t heard that expression? What a pleasure then to read Rocking Horse Road. Carl Nixon has fulfilled the promise he showed with last year’s stories, Fish ‘n’ Chip Shop Song. He is a major talent and this is a very good book. You should read it.”
North & South Magazine

“Both chronicle and investigation, sociological fiction and morality tale, Rocking Horse Road is a beautiful impressionist novel.”

“Carl Nixon tells this story, and that is what is outstanding about it, from a we-perspective: The crime and the efforts to solve it are reported from the boys’ perspective—later: the men’s—furthermore, the country and its people are characterized, families and relationships are dissected, so that, at the end, a panorama of New Zealand’s society over the last two decades evolves. The result: a very distinct and exceptional crime novel, which is brilliantly constructed and passionately narrated.”
Funkhaus Europa

“Nixon interprets the classic coming-of-age-motif in a stunning manner. The murder of Lucy Asher marks the end of childhood and keeps on fascinating the protagonists until their midlife. Especially, since it will not be the only act of violence. The search for Lucy’s murderer reaches its humiliating climax when the self-appointed detectives attack a wrongly suspected man at his home. By letting this attack happen during the devastation of The Spit by a massive storm flood, Nixon is consistent with the novel’s almost too explicit symbolism: Rocking Horse Road turns out to be a project of disillusionment.”
Die Welt

“Carl Nixon wrote a clever, multilayered and extremely thrilling novel, in which we get to know a lot about New Zealand along the way. He does not establish a causally determined connection between the individual crime and the authoritarian conditions during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour but mirrors the one in the other. In a knowledgeable and subtle fashion, he tells us about a few teenagers, in whom the sense of justice and a restrained sensuality are mixed together into a highly explosive brew. And he provides us with an eventful image of a New Zealand suburb which tries to seal itself off from the big world while, at the same time, everything that is happening in this world is reflected in it nonetheless.”
Die Presse