Many years ago, I went to a museum that had an earthquake simulation exhibit, where you stood on a platform and hit a switch and the platform moved around like it would in an earthquake. It was pretty scary, and I’ve never forgotten it. So the idea of a memoir that takes in both family upheaval and the experience of living through the earthquakes in Christchurch was intriguing. An obvious correlation, you might think.
But Michelle Tom’s memoir goes much deeper than this. I first knew of Michelle’s estrangement from her mother through a Facebook connection, and then I read a portion of the book that was awarded a prize and published. I thought I knew what the book would be about, but it is so much more than just a “telling of a story”.
Firstly, there is the fragmented nature of the memories, as it moves between childhood and adult years over and over – dating each segment is helpful, but also the descriptions and her ability to clearly “situate the reader” means it’s never confusing. It’s also not a misery memoir. Among the sections about violence and abuse are stories of fun times, growing strength and resilience, and finally the ability to stand back and “see” and understand, and then move on. Something that many people never achieve.
Having fully engaged with Michelle’s descriptions of growing up, of the damage and the denied need and then the damaging consequences for her and her siblings, getting to the big earthquake and their experiences of its devastation comes as a shock. How she and her husband and family endured the after effects is a story in itself. I cannot imagine having to continue living in a house beset by aftershocks where liquefaction happened constantly around them (with accompanying sewage from broken pipes) and finally surged inside.
Michelle may not realise herself how much her strength and sheer guts shines through this memoir. It’s probably the element that made me marvel most at the stories she relates. It also led me to think deeply about my own family, our stories and experiences, as well as those of close friends. It’s also a great book to read in this time of Covid and lockdowns, simply to show how we can survive and keep living and hoping, and that a new life is possible.