Ten Thousand Aftershocks - Book Review
This time last year, Ten Thousand Aftershocks by my writer friend, Michelle Tom, made its stunning debut. A memoir about a family as volatile as the land they live in, this story will keep you up at night and will stay with you long after you finish reading.
Trigger warning: Domestic Violence
Michelle Tom’s debut memoir, Ten Thousand Aftershocks, is about her turbulent childhood growing up in New Zealand and of the life she created for herself as an adult, in Australia. After the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, Michelle and her young family were overwhelmed by recurring aftershocks, and so made the decision to move to the safer ground of Melbourne, Australia.
The earthquake motif running throughout the novel provides a striking metaphor for the volatile nature of Michelle’s family of origin. Just as a young Michelle never knew if the earth was going to split open beneath her feet, so too, she never knew when her sleep would be broken by the sounds of violence from her parents in the next room, or when the next blow was going to fall on her siblings or herself.
The story is told in a braided narrative that darts through time and place, reflecting the chaos of Michelle’s early life. This structure is true to her consciousness, with the past and present inexorably intertwined. The family members Michelle has lost are never far from her thoughts, and she writes about their short lives and untimely deaths with sensitivity and grace. She recreates the time leading up to their deaths, moment by moment, and in doing so honours their lives and ensures they will not be forgotten.
But despite the tragedy, Michelle tells her story with humour and an underlying feeling of hope. Her descriptions of her charismatic parents, eccentric grandmother, feisty sister, and tender younger brother are vivid and often very funny. Her love for them and the complexity of their relationships comes through despite the difficulty they had in living as a family.
Michelle’s road to finding peace has not been an easy one, nor was her decision to cut ties with her mother. Recognising her mother’s own struggles, Michelle detaches from her with love, and relinquishes any societal notions of the way their relationship should be. She allows the estrangement to grow over time, to the point where contact dwindles to nonexistence. By the end of the book, both mother and daughter are free of any lingering obligation they may have felt toward each other and go on to live their lives in fulfillment and peace.
Ten Thousand Aftershocks is ultimately a story of hope, and of building a new life from the ruins of an old one. Even while reading about her darkest times, I always knew that Michelle’s humour, resilience, and adventurous spirit would see her through. And I was right.
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