MICHELLE TOM Ten Thousand Aftershocks. Reviewed by Mary Garden
Michelle Tom’s memoir weaves together the experience of being in an earthquake and the reverberations of family trauma.
In 2011, Michelle Tom’s house was damaged by the deadly magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch that killed 185 people.
In her debut memoir Ten Thousand Aftershocks, New Zealand-born Michelle uses this earthquake story to frame a deeper story, that of family violence, mental illness, and estrangement. The book is divided into five sections, each reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks. An aftershock is not only a minor shock following the main shock of an earthquake, but an after-effect of a distressing or traumatic event.
New Zealand lies in the seismically active Ring of Fire, a 40,000-kilometre arc of volcanoes and oceanic trenches that partly encircles the Pacific Ocean. Around 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes occur within this region. When Michelle was a child, there would be earthquake drills at school ‒ they would sit on the wooden floor and grip the cold metal legs of their desks. Nothing prepared her more than thirty years later when the earth beneath her began to rumble and buck, leaching cold sludge though the floor of their house, while water rose around her legs: ‘The devastating inundation we’d feared for so long had arrived, and I knew for sure my house was in its death throes.’
This intricately structured memoir with its two narratives moves backwards and forwards through time using fragmented vignettes, and eerily gives the sensation of being in an earthquake of another kind. I felt my mind reeling and rocking from the cascade of acrimonious family dysfunction and tragedies ‒ the family secret, her sister’s terminal illness, her brother’s struggle with schizophrenia and ultimate suicide, the sudden death of her father, and her own panic disorder. Through it all is her struggle to connect with her mother, a relationship marred by abuse, scapegoating and enmeshment.
The book opens with the funeral of her sister, Meredith. After the hole of the grave was filled, the author feels her sister’s spirit nudge her to one day write their story, the story of how her sister had arrived in that grave. Her sister’s story, ‘a cautionary tale of consequences’ woven through the book, is especially heart-wrenching. As the author reflects, Meredith was ‘held together by the wounds of a hundred tiny burns that she nurtured and could not heal’.
After the earthquake, Michelle and her young family relocate to safer ground in Melbourne, Australia. It is a much safer place to be, in all respects.
This book moved me deeply. There are remarkable parallels with my own story. I, too, was born in New Zealand and found safe harbour in Australia, but in the 1970s. My cousin’s house was also destroyed in the 2011 earthquake. And I, too, have experienced the pain of estrangement from a family member. We hesitate and hope, but as Michelle discovered, cutting contact is often the healthiest course of action.
In this brave, groundbreaking book, Michelle shines a light on a taboo topic, estrangement from one’s family, especially from one’s mother. And standing in her own story, she dispels shame:
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 is one of the best memoirs I have read in years. It is beautifully written, with clarity and care. It’s also a remarkably relatable book – after devouring it within 24 hours, I recommended it to a number of friends, because the experiences Michelle describes echo some of their own. That’s the power of memoir. We not only get a glimpse into someone else’s life, but we can feel less alone.
Michelle Tom Ten Thousand Aftershocks HarperCollins 2021 PB 368pp $34.99
Mary Garden is an author and freelance journalist. Her latest book Sundowner of the Skies, which explores family violence and intergenerational trauma, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award 2020, and her essays and articles have appeared in a range of journals, newspapers, and magazines, including The Humanist, The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, The Guardian, The Northern Times, New Zealand Geographic, and Journalism: Theory, practice & criticism. She lives in Queensland, Australia. She has a PhD in journalism. You can find her on Twitter @marygarden
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