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Murder, Taxidermy and Tattoos

Magpie Hall by Rachael King
Vintage, $35. Reviewed by KERRY TANKARD


I went to the Wellington book launch of Magpie Hall, and wasn’t disappointed; many friendly, talented people contributed to make it an awesome evening for Rachael, including the Brunette Mafia, her writing friends from VUW’s Institute of Modern Letters writing programme. Bill Manhire, the head of the programme, was present, along with a scattering of the Wellington litterati.

So, on to the book; a second novel often comes with a lot of baggage from the first one, especially in terms of readers expectations. This novel is no exception, and I expect, from the smattering of reviews in New Zealand that I’ve read, I’m not the only reviewer to have found the gothic novel form as appealing as the contemporary family narrative woven into this historical mystery.

The combination of tattooing, collecting, taxidermy, a murder mystery, and the schädenfreude of a young woman who recognises her family’s role in the extinction of once populous bird species, make this a gripping read.
Not so much a ‘who-dunnit’ as a ‘why-dunnit’, along with the narrator character’s gradual realisation of her family background.

I’m a great biography and history fan, and this novel rang true in its portrayal of a early settler family’s life over many generations.

I polished it off in two sessions, when I had planned to read it after another couple of books I’m reviewing – but it just drew me in.

If you have any interest in history, ecology, tattoo parlours, or indeed Canterbury as a whole, then you too will find this book ‘un-put-downable’.

Having spent some time in Christchurch, I found the descriptions of the city and the local ‘landed squatocracy’ to be apposite, and humorous in places that perhaps the author hadn’t intended it to be.

I did find myself a little dissatisfied at the end of the story though. Despite the lyrical descriptions, I wanted pictures of the tattoos….

Visually, the book is nicely laid out, and my quip about the tattoos is offset by chapter heading illustrations that follow the florid style of Victorian designs, beautifully designed by Sarah Laing.