Butcherbird by Cassie Hart (Huia, 2021), 356pp, $25
Cassie Hart’s supernatural thriller Butcherbird won the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel Award for best novel. Hart has previously self-published novels and novellas as well as short fiction under pen names J.C. Hart and Nova Black. Butcherbird is her first work published by Huia. It is a project Hart worked on as a participant of Te Papa Tupu, a writers’ incubator designed for emerging Māori writers. Hart writes speculative fiction and paranormal romance, and Butcherbird sits more towards the supernatural, horror, suspense side of speculative fiction. It is set in rural Taranaki where Hart grew up and, fittingly, Taranaki Maunga features as a guardian-like presence in the book, watching over events as they slowly unfold in the narrative.
We follow troubled twenty-something Jena Benedict and her deadbeat boyfriend Cade back to the isolation of the family farm to visit Rose, Jena’s dying grandmother and the matriarch of the family. It is the first time Jena has returned to the farm since Rose sent her away as a toddler after she survived a tragic barn fire that killed her parents and two siblings. Jena suffers from survivor’s guilt and probably PTSD and has long wondered about the circumstances surrounding the death of her family. This visit is her last chance to make peace with the trauma she experienced as a child and to find out the truth from Rose before she dies and the farm is sold. A dark cloud hovers over the house like a harbinger of doom, and mysterious events start happening as soon as Jena arrives at the farm. It is a house full of memories and ghosts of the past and carries haunting recollections of Jena’s dead mother, father, brother and sister. The past haunts not only each of the characters in unusual ways but extends to a haunting of the farm and the land itself.
The story is told from the alternating points of view of Jena and Will, a professional caregiver hired to look after Rose. Will comes from the same rural community as Jena, situated beneath Taranaki Maunga. He is a ghost hunter and sets up equipment in the barn to detect paranormal activity. He has puzzled over the mystery of what happened at the Benedict Farm and is hoping that Rose will spill her secrets to him in her final days. Will is also searching for the truth about what happened to his parents, who died in tragic circumstances when he was a child. He has compiled folders on six families in the region who have all been involved in unexplained and tragic deaths, and is hoping to find some link to explain his own family tragedy.
At first, Jena does not like Will and views him as an interloper who blocks her from seeing Rose. She wants him gone. But for some reason Rose wants to keep Will around. When Jena’s relationship with her boyfriend Cade starts to sour, and she opens her eyes to Will’s motives, she soon realises that Will is searching for his own answers and he might be able to help her gain the answers she seeks from Rose. Jena and Will team up and work to unearth family secrets, solve the mysteries surrounding the farm and find out the truth about the bizarre and tragic deaths of their loved ones.
Cade bumbles along with Jena and Will in their search for answers. However, his focus is on the financial profit that he and Jena can make from the future sale of the farm and its contents. He moves in and out of the story and drives away from the farm several times. Jena’s tolerance of Cade is increasingly tested as he becomes more insistent that they should sell the farm. Hart carefully builds a sense of foreboding, always grounding the narrative in imagery of the land and Mount Taranaki and ‘the halo of cloud that so often surrounded him’, references to the ‘Dark man’ and mysterious occurrences that become increasingly unexplainable. Jena wonders, ‘… was this brand of crazy their real family legacy … perhaps she was genetically inclined towards darkness …’
One trope woven throughout the book, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, is the spooky and abiding presence of magpies and their odd behaviour towards Jena. ‘She heard a whoosh, and the sky darkened but it wasn’t clouds, it was birds, blotting out the light, their wings beating loud in her ears.’ In a gothic horror parallel that reminded me of the tree branches tapping on windows in Wuthering Heights, the magpies in Butcherbird often tap the windows with their beaks. The magpies bombard Jena when she visits an eerie swamp at the back of the farm and then fall dead at her feet. In another scene, the birds peck at her and try to stop her going into the new barn built on the same site as the one that burned down when Jena was a child. The magpies smash through the clear-light roof in clouds of strange smoke when she enters the barn.
The bird trope extends to Jena’s grandmother’s nickname for her, ‘little bird’, also the meaning of her name, derived from Arabic origins. Jena hates the birds but Rose tells her that they saved her life and stopped her going into the barn where she would have died with her family. We come to the same conclusion as Jena and Will; the birds are trying to protect her from mysterious dark forces that surround the farm. But what are these dark forces? This mystery draws you into a suspenseful ride that gives the book the unputdownable quality of a good whodunnit.
Jena’s need for closure drives her desire to unearth the truth about the fire that has overshadowed her life since Rose sent her away, a motivation that provides a strong narrative thread throughout the novel. Family secrets slowly start to unravel as Jena and Will dig up clues in the house and the land surrounding the farm, and Jena demands answers from Rose. In a confrontation between Rose and Jena, Rose says she is ‘… not ready to know’ and tells Jena she’s ‘just a drunk kicking around with a loser’. Rose has always maintained that her decision to send Jena away to live with her aunt in Wellington was for Jena’s protection. But Rose’s resolve begins to crumble in the face of Jena’s mission to get to the truth about what happened on the night of the fire, and as she tries to find some release from the trauma and shame that haunts her.
Rose is at the centre of all the events that have happened on the farm in the past, including Rose’s disappeared husband (Jena’s grandfather), her dead daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Rose reassures Jena that she was not responsible for the death of her family and that she did not start the fire that killed them. But Jena is certain that Rose knows more than she is letting on.
It is easy to see why Butcherbird won the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel Award. It has a suspenseful and riveting pace. The whodunnit aspect that parallels Jena and Will’s desire to find out the truth carried me along and made for a page-turning read, and the slow reveal of the dark truth is a thrilling aspect of the narrative. This beautifully written supernatural thriller, set firmly in rural Aotearoa, adds to the growing list of speculative fiction books written by Indigenous authors in Aotearoa. It is especially heartening to see Hart’s excellent work acknowledged by the science fiction fantasy community. This book is a must-read for keen readers of suspense-filled, Aotearoan speculative fiction.
GINA COLE is Fijian, Scottish and Welsh and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau. Her book Black Ice Matter won the Hubert Church Prize for Best First Book Fiction at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her science fiction fantasy novel, Na Viro (Huia, 2022), is a work of Pasifikafuturism.