Cassie Hart is one of the recipients of the Te Papa Tupu scholarship that is offered biannually through the Māori Literature Trust to emerging writers. As part of the scholarship, candidates work with a seasoned author - in this case the immensely talented Whiti Hereaka - to bring an original manuscript to publishing level. The resulting text from this exponentially growing author is Butcherbird.
On her personal blog, Hart refers to herself as a speculative fiction writer (and also goes under the pseudonyms of J.C. Hart and Nova Blake) who enjoys delving into human nature in all its beauty and disarray.
The story is set almost entirely at the family farm of the protagonist, Jena. Only, the family has quite a number of family secrets that date back to Druid times. From anthropomorphic birds to cursed keepsakes, there is a whole host of mysticism lurking beneath the surface of life on the farm. Add to that some rather horrific memories that Jena has of losing her entire immediate family to a terrible fire some twenty years earlier as well as a mysterious ‘Dark Man’ who is the cause of so much carnage, and you have yourself a rollercoaster of an adventure for readers.
However, Jena still has her estranged grandmother - Rose. It is the failing health of Rose that creates the impetus for Jena to return to the family farm, but she finds the nerve to confront her about all the goings on in her memories of the farm.
As the narrative develops other characters become central to the whole scenario. Cade is Jena’s boyfriend and during his stay with her in the remote setting he seems to be changing and Jena must find out why. Then there is the carer for Rose, Will. He is an affable and quite relatable character who serves as a great sidekick for Jena when things get a little hairy. As a narrative technique, the chapters are told from a third person limited perspective bouncing back and forth between Jena and Will.
Like many of Huia’s titles, the artwork is amazing and, while macabre in denoting the remains of a bird, is eye-catching - especially when set against the bright green background. With Butcherbird, once again Huia are showing a fresh and original take on the novel cover.
Overall, this is an applaudable first Huia published novel from Hart (she has several others produced over the last few years). It is pacey and intriguing while maintaining that all important characterisation to ensure there is solid investment from the reader. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
Reviewer: Chris Reed