Cover of book: Ten Thousand Aftershocks

Michelle Tom
Ten Thousand Aftershocks

The Christchurch earthquake of February 22, 2011 hammered Michelle Tom’s house, but the terror didn’t stop that day. It was repeated in the “ten thousand aftershocks” of her memoir’s title. One day the following December after two giant aftershocks, a foul-smelling “geyser of cold sludge” burst through the cracks in the floor and flowed through the house, the sewage-laden liquefaction “a cruel epilogue to upheaval”. For the author, who had grown up hypervigilant – always needing to find her feet on the seismically active ground created by her parents’ physical violence and mental cruelty – the “metaphoric shit” had turned “real”.

An earthquake appears sudden but it comes at the tail end of a long and cumulative subterranean process. Trauma can work in similar ways. The death of Tom’s sister Meredith in 2013 was the quake that prompted the author to face the “grief, guilt and fury” that had been lying under the surface since childhood. Although Meredith died of cancer, the special abuse and victimisation their parents had reserved for her, as living proof of their darkest secrets, had pushed her to survive most of her life, as a friend put it, on “the very edge of pain, fear and risk”.

Tom’s father, in his better persona of nature guide, taught the author that to find your way home again when walking through the bush, you need to look back as you go. The mosaic structure of Ten Thousand Aftershocks groups vignettes from different years of the author’s life seemingly at random in sections corresponding to the five-stage theory of seismic activity. The lack of chronologically solid ground is disorienting at first. But the friction between these carefully positioned fragments, how they push and grind against one another, creates tension to form a compelling narrative of “consequences unforeseen”. While the metaphors are obvious, they are never overwrought. Tom writes well and lucidly and, remarkably for such a story, with minimal self-indulgence.

A gripping moment towards the end of book illustrates this well. It’s 2016 and the anniversary of her father’s death. She lights a candle to commemorate him. Her 12-year-old son, Caleb, reminds her that her father had hit her: “He was a bad guy.” Feeling “gut-punched”, she struggles with her answer: “People are complicated.” Caleb replies, “Yeah, but he hit you. That’s not cool, Mum.” Though unnerved, she recognises that she taught him well. There is solid ground beneath his feet.

4th Estate, 368pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 18, 2021 as "Ten Thousand Aftershocks, Michelle Tom".

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