This memoir by New Zealand born- now Melbourne resident – Michelle Tom is already one of my standout reads of 2021. It cleverly, poetically, blends her story of family violence, love, and bitterness with the devastation of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011. She uses geology and seismology as metaphors to drill down into the strata of her family; its patterns of behaviour and unrest over generations.
I had some initial confusion in the opening chapters, with their leaps across multiple timeframes, before I realised this is also a metaphor: for memory, and the way past events and feelings come to us in a mélange of seemingly unconnected scraps and layers.
The book is divided into five sections, each one reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks of the title. And for each of these stages, she identifies a corresponding period or event in her family’s life. It is such a powerful way of looking at family and individual trauma.
As children, she and her siblings were burdened with adult secrets they should never have had to hear. Regarding her sister Meredith, she says, in a passage reminiscent of the Victorian idea of dying from a broken heart:
Some days the weight of daylight was too much, as she hid away in her darkened flat. She fought to carry the secret of her beginning from each day into the next, and several years before she died I realised that she was not really living. Her spirit was fractured, and she possessed no energy for anything other than mere existence.Ten Thousand Aftershocks pp56-57
The legacy left for successive generations by parents and grandparents who are emotionally immature, manipulative and volatile is laid clear.
The descriptions of the earthquake itself and its aftermath are visceral and horrifying. My husband and I visited Christchurch in 2012 and saw evidence of the destruction it had caused, including mounds of strange mud that were left after the liquefaction that can happen during a major earthquake. Even this becomes part of the family metaphor:
What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.Ten Thousand Aftershocks p278
Ten Thousand Aftershocks is a profound and beautiful memoir, one I cannot recommend highly enough.
Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by Fourth Estate in September 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
…how do we endure when suffering becomes unbearable and our obstacles seem monstrous? How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out?…We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence.Phosphorescence p281
This lovely book was a recent birthday gift from a dear friend (thank you Jennie!) and so timely after a year of tragedy and hardship at both the international and local levels. So many people I know have had a difficult year- economic worries, personal health challenges, suffering and death of loved ones, separation from people and places that they care about.
So reading Julia Baird’s book was like applying a balm to raw damaged skin: soothing, calming, but also an invitation to think deeply about life and what really matters. In it, she talks a little about her own personal trials, especially her very serious health challenges, but the book is about much more than one person or one set of difficulties.
It’s a broad ranging exploration of what gives joy, wonder, passion, hope, purpose; especially what keeps people going during the hard times. She includes themes such as the power of nature, connection and community, working to a purpose larger than ourselves, the role of beauty and silence, paying attention.
Each theme is illustrated by examples from the author’s own life but also the lives of others from past and present times. I particularly enjoyed reading about her activism and that of others on issues like feminism, climate change, indigenous, Black or LGBTQI rights, and the environment. Comments on the need to maintain effort over the long term resonated for me, as someone who has at times despaired at the slow rate of change and the feeling that achieving social justice goals is a matter of ‘one step forward, several leaps back.’ As Baird says:
You don’t walk away until the work is done.Phosphorescence p 101
Most moving to me, however, were the two chapters she addresses to her daughter (Letter to a young woman) and son (Thoughts for my son: the art of savouring.) Such beautiful, wry, humorous and hopeful reflections from a mother to her children.
Phosphorescence is a book to be savoured, enjoyed, mulled over and returned to again and again.
It was published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in March 2020.