Tom, Michelle. Ten Thousand Aftershocks. HarperCollins, 2021. RRP: $34.99, 368pp, ISBN: 9781460760017.
‘Brave’ has long struck me as a potentially fraught descriptor for a book, particularly one based on personal experience. Brenda Miller, for example, has written about feeling ‘suddenly self-conscious, deflated, a fraud’ on being commended for her bravery after giving a reading of a ‘really personal’ essay. ‘To anoint me as brave made me feel as if I had really done something wrong,’ she says, ‘something no one in their right mind would do: risk making an ass of myself in public’ (103). Perhaps more seriously, Miller seems to suggest, to praise her courage risks obscuring the fact that the memoirist at work is doing more, in terms of writerly skill, than ‘plumbing the depths of our souls’:
I’ve come to see that at some crucial point the best autobiographical writers shift their allegiance from experience, itself, to the artifact they’re making of that experience. To do so, they mustn’t find courage; they must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form. (103)
I was reminded of Miller’s essay while reading the powerful debut memoir by New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based writer Michelle Tom. Ten Thousand Aftershocks is, without doubt, a brave book, in which Tom writes with remarkable candour about deeply personal subject matter. It is also beautifully crafted non-fiction which explores the possibilities of form to elucidate challenging subject matter and build understanding and insight through, as Miller puts it, ‘a prose that goes beyond the facts and gets at a truth accessed only through this artistic interpretation of experience’ (109).
The book intricately interweaves two vital strands of Tom’s life: surviving the destruction of the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010/11 and growing up in a family environment characterised by violence and dysfunction. Fragments reaching across decades are arranged in sections based on the five seismological stages of an earthquake, from the initial build-up of ‘latent potential for catastrophe’ (7) through to the aftershocks, ‘dangerous in their ability to bring down already weakened structures’ (257). These phases thus offer a potent metaphor for the ways trauma and abuse can ripple through generations. The effect, particularly in the memoir’s earlier sections, is deliberately unsettling, evoking the instability of the ground—metaphorical and literal—beneath Tom’s feet, and the disorientation that can accompany both trauma and grief.
Tom is forthright in describing what she and her two younger siblings endured: physical violence and emotional distance at their father’s hands, and psychological manipulation and cruelty at their mother’s. And yet, she seems to insist, few people—if any—in this story are wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Here the earthquake metaphor helps to elucidate the ways Tom’s parents’ behaviour can be interpreted as the aftershocks of their own unhappy upbringings. It, in turn, sets off reverberations described in acutely intimate scenes depicting some of Tom’s and her siblings’ frailties and flawed moments as adults; as she notes, ‘What you live is what you learn’ (213). These passages can be difficult to read and were surely difficult to write. But the reader—or at least this reader—gains the sense Tom is compelled to reveal her family history ‘not necessarily,’ as Miller puts it, ‘to convey information or fact—or to bravely reveal a dark past—but to create the truth of literature, of metaphor, which is not always so direct’ (104).
As the narrative progresses, memories of the Christchurch earthquakes and their aftermath become increasingly central and Tom’s recollections of this time are filled with vivid, memorable detail. In one scene, a magnitude-six quake unleashes ‘a geyser of cold sludge’ that bursts through the foundations of the family home, depositing ‘sewage-laden silt […] inside every cavity like a disease only houses catch’ (240). At night, she listens to rumbling aftershocks and feels ‘invisible, of no significance, beyond any sense of control or sway in my world’ (209). Grief is a palpable presence throughout the memoir—the premature deaths of Tom’s father, sister and brother are deeply felt—and here there is a profound sense of loss for the life she and her husband had built for their children in New Zealand. ‘We’d given up the expectation our lives would ever go back to how they had been,’ she recalls (233).
Tom’s chosen form and central metaphor thus come to suggest not only how patterns of abusive behaviour can become ingrained across successive generations, but also the ways past experiences can reverberate into the present and future via the choices and plans we make. An example comes in the memoir’s final sections as the family debates moving away from Christchurch. In one poignant scene, Tom and her husband are trying to decide whether to relocate to Melbourne or Greytown, on New Zealand’s North Island. Listing the pros and cons on two whiteboards, she counts ‘close to Mum’ as a plus for Greytown, and ‘away from Mum’ in Melbourne’s favour. This is, she writes, ‘my inner conflict writ large on the living-room wall’:
whether to remain in New Zealand out of duty to my mother, or leave for my own family? To stay or go. Run or remain. Fight or flee. The key to the present was in the past. (256)
In the end, they choose Melbourne, and though the book’s fragmentary structure continues to resist linearity and chronological order, it comes to feel somewhat less unsettling as the family’s new life in Australia begins to cohere as the initial shock of displacement fades.
That Ten Thousand Aftershocks should conclude with something other than an uncomplicatedly ‘happy’ ending seems fitting, and the book’s final pages offer a sense of hope while acknowledging the elements of the story that might resist (some) readers’ yearnings for a straightforwardly neat resolution. After her sister’s death, Tom gradually becomes estranged from her mother, and the last sections of the book are thus suffused with loss, but also with a good deal of optimism for the future. Tom finds peace in accepting she is ‘no longer responsible for my mother’s happiness, only my own’ (349), and in a growing confidence that she has found surer ground on which the next generation can stand. She writes: ‘Time taught me to trust the foundations of our new lives, and, slowly, I calmed.’ (347)
Miller, Brenda. ‘”Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!”: courage and creative nonfiction’ in Margot Singer and Nicole Walker (eds), Bending Genre: Essays on creative nonfiction. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. 103-110.
Gemma Nisbet is a writer and PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia, researching objects, memory and the personal essay. Her work has appeared in publications including TEXT, The West Australian and a number of Australian anthologies.