In June 2019, when Michelle Tom, an Australian memoirist, emailed me to ask about an article of mine, "Beyond Linearity: Writing the Segmented Essay," I was both delighted and surprised. It had appeared in the journal Writing on the Edge and was twenty years old. I attached longer articles I'd published later on that non-linear theme to an online response I soon sent her. As I drafted it, I realized how much that article had set in motion a chain of articles and essays in my writing over the years, and I thought about the influences and motivations behind past writing decisions, the way one thing led to another. Michelle soon replied, explaining who else she'd read "to teach myself how to write in fragments/vignettes."
Over a year-and-a-half later she sent me her published book. Ten Thousand Aftershocks blends events in two narrative strands, one recounting a chaotic childhood and its impact on family relationships, the other recording recurring episodes leading up to a devastating earthquake and its aftermath in Christchurch, on New Zealand's southern island. The persistent aftershocks eventually impelled her to move with her husband and children away from family in New Zealand, where her brother and father are buried, across the Tasman Sea to eastern Australia to start life anew in Melbourne. She would return only intermittently when further family losses occurred. She draws parallels between her growing estrangement from her self-absorbed mother and seeking a more stable environment in another country.
The book opens with an introductory section titled "Aftershock" which presents two dictionary definitions of the term: "1: an aftereffect of a distressing or traumatic event," and "2: a minor shock following the main shock of an earthquake." A sentence dated July 2013 follows and declares: "We buried Meredith between two fault lines, and I wondered if she would ever rest in peace." Meredith was her sister. At once we are aware of the autobiographical dimension of the memoir and its metaphorical resonances.
Five narrative sections of the book following that opening are introduced by short passages describing progressive stages of an earthquake. Stage One informs us ominously, "Long before violence is unleashed, an earthquake initiates in secret. [. . .] immense seismic pressure accumulates in rocks for decades or even millennia, its latent potential for catastrophe unseen, and inevitable." It implicitly foreshadows traumatic moments not only in geology but also in family history. The chapters of each section all begin with dates that the events narrated took place and move back and forth in time, not following strict chronology yet establishing a developmental movement suggestive of those stages of an earthquake.
As in life, her memoir narrative concentrates attention on tensions and interactions among members of the family with only occasional but increasingly frequent reminders of the tensions rumbling below the surface of their island. Tremors and troubles occur throughout subsequent stages until, at Stage Four, the 6.3 earthquake occurs: "Rocks weakened by continued pressure and an influx of water no longer resist the strain from the fault, and a rupture occurs. An aggregation of elastic tension is finally released, and that energy, forced out through the landscape in seismic waves, results in violent shaking." Several chapters dated 22 February 2011 record the family's experience of the earthquake and let us live with them through the terror and persistent danger as they try to adjust to an unstable house and an altered landscape:
"Greg and I dived for the doorframe between the dining and living rooms, but Jack was thrown from his stool to the floor and froze in shock, on his knees. [. . .] The familiar sound of the earth wrenching itself back and forth gained volume beneath us, and every timber in the house screeched. Glass shattered, and I knew it was the sound of bottles crashing out of cabinets into a porcelain basin in the bathroom [. . .] The house bounced as if being catapulted off an enormous trampoline during a simultaneous and dynamic tug of war."
"Unpredictable by nature," she reports of the final stage, "aftershocks can be notable for their size and prevalence." They can "bring down already weakened structures." Aftershocks from the traumatic family life she and her siblings led include her sister's death from Melanoma, her brother's suicide, her father's death, and her never-to-be-resolved distance from her mother.
The aftereffects of what happens to us in our lives aren't always immediately obvious; we don't get over grief or terror once our situations have changed and we likely don't dwell on moments of accomplishment or triumph very long either. Daily living camouflages portents and foreshadowings as we move on, but the past will resonate within us much longer than we might consciously be aware. Ten Thousand Aftershocks is an observant reminder of that.
Note: Michelle Tom. Ten Thousand Aftershocks. Sydney, Australia: Fourth Estate, 2021.
Robert Root. "Collage, Montage, Mosaic, Vignette, Episode, Segment", The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008: 65-84.
Robert Root. "This Is What the Spaces Say", The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008: 85-94.