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Cover-Hart-Butcherbird

When Jena was a little girl, her parents and two younger siblings died in a fire on the family farm. She was saved by birds—by magpies, a great flock of which held her down when she tried to go to her family: “They fill the air, the sound of their wings, their caws, covering up the sound of the flames” (p. 101). She has to leave the farm to go live with her aunt and uncle, but years later, as an adult, Jena gets a call. Her grandmother Rose, who stayed at the farm when Jena was sent away, is dying, and she wants to see her grandchild.

The relationship between the two women is not good, filled as it is with resentment and fear and betrayal, and the farm’s still full of magpies. Cassie Hart injects a sense of Hitchcock into many of the magpie scenes here, as the magpies lurk and herd, and generally act like creepy little beasts of indeterminate violence, which is pretty much what a magpie is. I’ve always gotten on with them. They’re clever, and I like that, though they can hold a grudge, apparently, which is unfortunate for those who are dive-bombed by them but says good things about their capacity for memory—which is why if you’re polite to them, and I am, they tend to recall this and be polite back. Hart, in her first traditionally published novel, has picked an excellent symbol here, because this is a book steeped in memory and violence and choice, and how the two can come together.

The truly impressive thing about Butcherbird, however, is not the growing sense of menace or the eerie flocking of the magpies, hurling themselves through closed skylights and dropping dead in midair over swamps. It’s the way that Jena has responded to trauma, and in a very real sense this is the scariest—and the saddest—aspect of the book. It is also the most understandable. Her childhood was almost normal until it wasn’t, and then that normality imploded twice over. Her family burned to death in a barn while Jena escaped, and then her grandmother sent her away, out of the home she was raised in, and to the home of her aunt and uncle. There’s no indication that her new home was one of cruelty, and in fact when that aunt and uncle return to the farm at the end of the book they appear genuinely worried for her. They might not have been what Jena needed as a little girl, and the distance between them is genuine and not to be papered over, but as Jena’s aunt reminds her: Jena may have lost the most, but other people lost as well. We like to think that grief can pull people together, but sometimes just surviving our own misery limits how well we can maintain existing relationships.

Jena, clearly, is not good at this sort of maintenance. She’s hanging on by her fingernails, in a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship. Her boyfriend, Cade, is a waste of space whose cheerful nature softens the fact that he’s bleeding Jena dry, preferring to surf and busk while she pays the bills and moulds herself into someone who causes as little trouble as possible. If Cade’s not happy, it must be because Jena has been a bitch somehow, or has been insufficient in some way—not sexy enough or patient enough or trusting enough. The worst thing about this perception is that it almost entirely comes from Jena herself. Cade’s manipulative and lazy, but the routine deprecations that Jena is subject to are far more often her own.

And why wouldn’t they be? The horror of her childhood’s ending (because who could really remain a child after that) is tarnished by both survivor’s guilt and incomprehension. Rose’s refusal to talk about what happened means that Jena was left thinking that the fire might actually have been her fault. Readers will immediately dismiss this as a possibility, and they are, I think, meant to. The type of child who could lock her family in a barn and then burn them all to death is not a child who grows up to be someone like Jena—fucked up, perhaps, but a fundamentally kind and decent person. Yet Jena’s memories of that night are so clouded, both by the horror of the magpies and the incoherent, surreal recollections of her time inside the barn—she recalls her mother, asleep, with a red scarf around her throat, a scarf which she later realises was not a scarf at all, but “blood. Her blood. The blood from her family, running everywhere” (p. 120)—that guilt has taken the place of reason. She disobeyed, after all. Her dad brought her out to the barn and told her to stay there but she needed to pee and so she sneaked out, she was naughty and didn’t listen, and they died. And then she was sent away and not allowed to come back and the one time she tried, running away from her aunt to come home to her grandmother, she was sent away again.

No wonder the poor kid thought it was all her fault. No wonder she thought people were blaming her. And really, it’s not as if the other option was any more attractive. Knowing that her beloved father killed her mother and her brother and her baby sister and was going to kill her too? Wouldn’t it be easier, just a little, to have everything be her fault after all?

Jena’s beliefs, then, her fundamental insecurity, are all too comprehensible. They soften the edge of frustration when she’s making another poor choice, trying once again to pacify her useless boyfriend with sex and his favourite dinner when all I wanted her to do was to tell him good riddance. It’s tempting, as a reader, to lose sympathy with characters who are so shaped by trauma, especially when you’re fortunate enough to have none of the same hurtful experiences yourself, but that is the lazy option for lazy readers. Butcherbird is a horror story, and horror more than any other genre, perhaps, explores the half-life of trauma, the way it radiates and contaminates. It’s a genre that relies on empathy, that makes consumers want the often difficult protagonists to overcome their problems, and it’s only by being fully situated in Jena’s trauma, frustrating as it can sometimes be, that that empathy is fully drawn out.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the horror is generational. There’s a reason that haunted houses are so much scarier, and so much more prolific, than haunted factories or haunted schools. The home is the centre of the family, and what happens there resonates in a way that is less apparent in other settings. Butcherbird is not a haunted house story, but it is in its way a story of haunting, of how a place (a home) can be shattered and carry on, over generations, until that shattering is marked on every member. On this normal, otherwise nondescript little family farm, familiar in every respect to many of its New Zealand readers, is something inescapable and monstrous. I said this wasn’t a haunted house story, but I wonder if possession narratives aren’t, in their way, haunted house stories, at least if we interpret our bodies as a form of home. Possession—and it’s never really made clear here by what, with the possessing entity lacking a lot of history or personality beyond blind malice, a choice that makes it immensely scarier—affects both body and behaviour. Body and behaviour, the traits that link a family. It’s unsurprising, then, how very much the experience of possession reverberates through the generations.

The middle generation, Jena’s parents, is missing. Bits and pieces of their lives are sketched in, but so much of what Hart does here is achieved by implication. The happy memories that Jena has of her parents are cut through by tiny recollections of temper, of barely remembered tinges of violence in the family home, and this underlines, again, the woman that Jena has become. Presumption of guilt aside, would she be so determined to so constantly placate her boyfriend if the memory of similar placations hadn’t been trained into her early? Jena’s grandfather was possessed, and so was her father, and so, ultimately, is her own partner, but were the seeds of temptation not there to begin with? Her father had a temper. Her partner is, at the very least, self-centred and exploitative. Is there something there, in their characters, that invites possession in? Is there something there that’s—and I use the term deliberately—familiar?

Rose may know, but she’s not telling. It’s difficult not to want to shake her ancient, stubborn old body because it’s more pressure on Jena, isn’t it, to conform. Be good enough and your father won’t hurt you. Be good enough and your boyfriend won’t leave you. Be good enough and your grandmother will help you … but all these “good enoughs” require different types of goodness, and in trying to please everyone but herself, Jena is floundering.

She’s not the only one. Will, ostensibly hired as Rose’s carer over her final months, has secrets of his own. He’s a child of trauma as well, and a child of possession. In his case, his mother was the victim, and she gutted herself in front of him. Like Jena, he’s barely hanging on, trying to make sense of the world around him, and although he repeats, over and over, that he was a kid and couldn’t have helped, he’s practically drowning in guilt. (Notably, the dual possessions appear to have nothing to do with each other, which is I think a good choice, avoiding as it does the possibility of coincidences that are too neat and unsatisfying. Will is already aware that something dodgy is going on at the farm, and it was the reason he signed on as carer in the first place.)

Both Jena and Will are trying to create lives for themselves, hamstrung by the past, and yet here they are, sharing space in what is almost a giant set. The barn in which Jena’s family died has been rebuilt, and it’s standing there as if rebuilding has papered over the cracks. It’s all normal again: nothing to see here, everything’s fine. This is, of course, a gigantic mirage, a veneer over this rolling family history of possession and corruption and violence, but again … understandable. What else is Rose supposed to do? Wake up every morning to the burned-out shell where her daughter and grandchildren died? Is she supposed to clear the rubble away and sow the ground with salt? (From a farming country, I cringe just writing that.) No. Replacement is a patch-up job at best, but it’s something Rose can fix, even if the fix is temporary.

Make everything look alright, and maybe it will be.

Horror fans, of course, know better. You can dress up the barn like a stage set of normality and bring down the birds and send the children away, the surviving daughter, the surviving granddaughter, but trauma is generational. Horror lingers on. It stains the home, it marks the family. But if trauma is generational, so is the endurance of it. Jena is stronger than she seems, and that, too, is family legacy.

More, it’s something to celebrate—and something to end on. Those little flying balls of violence, the magpies, they have memories and they learn. You can make friends with a magpie if you want to. You’ll need to stand up for yourself, but you can do it. And Jena does, and she does, and it’s deeply satisfying to watch her do it.

 

 

 

 

 



Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She's sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
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