‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

2021, 368 p.

As I have grown older, and as more images flood our screens, many of the mental images I used to have of disasters have changed. I always thought of a tsunami as one of those enormous waves that big-wave surfers challenge themselves against, only to see in the Boxing Day tsunami that inexorable advance of water which, although not particularly high, just engulfed everything in its path. Bushfires I envisaged and saw as a roaring furnace, but not that blood-red, sullen sky of Mallacoota. Likewise with earthquakes. I knew about the shaking, the crumbled buildings and the ruptured roads but I had never heard of liquefaction. But liquefaction is here in this book:

Liquefaction is a fascinating, frightening seismic phenomenon. When it occurs over large areas it behaves as quicksand, a natural hazard capable of swallowing people and vehicles, and causing subsidence in buildings. It is a cruel epilogue to upheaval. Just as the survivor of a seismic event grapples with injury, damage and ongoing aftershocks, as they attempt to reel in their runaway panic and rush to check on children and property, as they disconnect gas bottles and grapple with what has just happened, within those hectic minutes a rising tide of liquefaction might come to lurk beneath the surface, seeking to pour forth a second wave of destruction….

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.

p. 277, 278

I knew from the title of this book that it was about the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Tom uses the five stages of an earthquake as the organizing structure for her memoir, but only the fourth stage deals directly with 22 February 2011. The earthquake is a rupturing, all engulfing moment in the narrative, but it only part of Tom’s own memoir of her family, written as a promise to her forty-three year old younger sister whose burial occurs in the opening pages. Michelle is the eldest of three children, but both her siblings have died, Meredith through melanoma cancer and her youngest brother, Paul, through suicide after a long struggle with schizophrenia. Michelle is very much the ‘golden child’ and her sister Meredith the scapegoat, and all three children are damaged by the toxic, inexplicable and warped relationship between the parents.

The five stages of the earthquake frame Michelle’s telling of this family trauma: Stage One- the secret straining and warping long before; Stage Two – the replacement of water in the fissures of the rock by air ; Stage Three- the forcing back of water into the cracked, expanded rock and the accumulation of elastic strain; Stage Four- the rupture of the earthquake and the release of energy in seismic waves; Stage Five – aftershock, sometimes for many years afterwards, dangerous in their ability to bring down already weakened structures.

Within these stages, the narrative is presented as short, non-chronological bursts, almost like rocks that grind against each other. Each segment is at most ten pages long; sometimes only one or two pages, and they jump back and forth. It is as if the narrative itself is moving under the surface, squeezing, forcing, with the pieces rubbing up against each other. It is not an easy read, emotionally or in terms of sense-making.

In another review I read recently, I came across the term ‘authorial hand-holding’. I think of the vignettes in this book, put into groups under an overarching structure, but without any clear organizing principles. There’s certainly no hand-holding going on here, and I wonder if the writer has eschewed authorial responsibility altogether -with the exception, perhaps, of the fourth, ‘earthquake’ section. Each separate vignette is carefully written in very polished, introspective prose but it is the reader who puts them together into a narrative. For me, it is the connections and transitions across the whole of a narrative that mark out good memoir writing, and I tend to think that this mosaic-type, pointillist style of assemblage baulks at that final step of integration and creation.

Perhaps I’m getting too old. Not only do I find such splintered writing difficult to read, but I’m also more jaundiced and less empathetic, perhaps, at reading ‘family trauma’. Is it that as I get older, everything is flattening out? Or is it that with time I am more aware that everyone has their wounds, their secrets, their weaknesses, their uglinesses as well as their unfulfilled intentions and their failed attempts? I keep wanting to wriggle out of the author’s shoes, in order to stand in those of the people she is judging. With age, I am less deafened by the howl of the child’s pain drowning out everything else, and I am listening for those other mutterings, those other pleadings. I think, perhaps, that I need to put family memoirs aside for a while.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

This will be my last Australian Women Writers Challenge book for 2021.

4 responses to “‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

  1. Pingback: History Memoir and Biography Round Up: November and December 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  2. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  3. Pingback: ‘The Believer: Encounters with love, death & faith’ by Sarah Krasnostein | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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