Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2019

In A Fishbone Church (1998), by Catherine Chidgey

I have finished this book here on my very last day in Auckland and am going to have to leave it behind because of the weight of my suitcase, and unfortunately, I don’t have the time to write the thoughtful review that it deserves.

In a Fishbone Church is Catherine Chidgey’s debut novel, and it’s so interesting to read it after falling in love with The Beat of the Pendulum last year.  That was a book constructed out of fragments of daily life, and contrary to my own expectations, I was utterly captivated by it.  Well, In a Fishbone Church—published 20 years beforehand—has some similar elements…

The reader learns about the characters from a diary, not the diary of an educated or especially literate man, just the daily notes of what is mostly a humdrum life, recorded by an Everyman who recognises that even an everyday life has significance of a sort.  He’s a butcher, and he goes hunting, and he buys presents for his wife, and he records his pulse rate because he’s got a heart problem.  He is not very interested in other people, and he finds it surprising when others, especially his family members, end up not doing exactly what he expected them to.

So much, so ordinary, and yet Chidgey has constructed from this material an absorbing tale of three generations interacting with this man and being influenced by him sometimes against their will.  The book made quite a splash: longlisted for the Orange prize in 1999, and winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in South East Asia and Pacific (1999), the Betty Trask Award (1999), the Hubert Church Best First Book Award (1998), and the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing (1997).

This is the blurb from Goodreads:

When Clifford Stilton dies, his son Gene crams his carefully kept diaries into a hall cupboard. But Clifford’s words have too much life in them to be ignored, and start to permeate his family’s world. In a Fishbone Church tells the story of three generations of the Stilton family, woven together with brilliance and subtlety, spanning continents and decades. From the Berlin rave scene to the Canterbury duck season, from the rural 1950’s to the cosmopolitan present, five vivid lives cohere in a deeply affecting and exhilarating novel.

It’s such a brilliant depiction of the cross-currents of family life.  Clifford is a bit bombastic in the way that a lot of fathers used to be.  They didn’t need to lay down the law or boss people around because they simply assumed that everyone would do what they said, just because they were men, and their wives, including the one in this novel, were complicit in that power dynamic.  (My father, I hasten to say, was not like that.  Not at all.)  But time passes, and the next generation doesn’t take his advice, moves away from home, and raises daughters who go much further afield, to Sydney and to Berlin.

Highly recommended if you can get your hands on it!

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: In a Fishbone Church
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 1998, 271 pages
ISBN: 97808647333351
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand from Bookmarks, Devonport, Auckland, New Zealand, $14NZD


  1. Fathers: I was exactly like that! Milly waxes lyrical on the subject when she lets herself go (not very often thank goodness).

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL I am trying hard to imagine that!


  2. Haha Bill, you make me laugh!

    Another interesting sounding book – and another great cover (though not as pretty as The naturalist!) I particularly love the sound of the “diary” or note like style is which his story is conveyed.


    • I picked up another of her backlist while in a 2nd-hand bookshop and am keen to read that to see if she maintained this interest in creating a coherent whole out of scraps of life. It is, after all, what we all do, day to day, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Lots to choose from because I’ve read seven novels by Kiwi women, but I’ll go for In a Fishbone Church by Catherine Chidgey.  (I have Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche on the TBR but […]


  4. […] life in The Beat of the Pendulum in 2018 and then was lucky to find a copy of her debut novel In a Fishbone Church.  She has won multiple awards both in New Zealand and internationally, and has just been longlisted […]


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