Trapped by Martin van Beynen review

by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman / 25 February, 2012
Trapped’s intimate revelations of Christchurch earthquake survivors grip the heart in a way the flood of visual images can’t.
Never a great believer in reviewers inserting their own lives into the work of another writer, I do feel a need to declare myself here. I live in Christchurch and experienced all the major earthquakes from September 2010 through to December 2011. I am hardly, therefore, an objective reader. Having lost a dear friend in the CTV building collapse of February 22, I feel deeply involved in this book’s subject: survival stories.

I had hardly got through the first paragraph of the opening account when there he was: Te Taki (Wally) Tairakena, one minute playing his guitar to a group of new international students, the next buried in the fallen building and dying there with them. I could only begin by reading Trapped slowly and in small doses, one story at a time, increasing my pace a little at the urging of the inevitable deadline. So let me drop all pretence of a cool literary assessment while trying to explain the effect of reading Martin van Beynen’s harrowing collection of near-death experiences.

By interviewing survivors from all the major sites where fatalities occurred, he assembles a kaleidoscopic view of what it was like in the central city when the earthquake struck at 12.51pm: the experiences of entrapment, escape, injury and recovery, recounted by a representative group of those who came through the terrors alive – although not all in one piece.

If you want to know what courage sounds like, then you will find that aplenty in these voices; this is not only a profoundly human document, but also an important written record amid a flood of visual images. Most of the books released in the wake of the February event have been glossy pictorials of wreckage and carnage; it might be easy to mistake them for the more permanent record and miss the humanity of these recorded witnesses, interleaved by the fluent prose of a professional journalist.

Van Beynen has an ability to frame people’s stories, opening up for us a window on the soul, a vision of what it was like to feel your life was at an end – and what really counted. These intimate revelations grip the heart in a way no picture can. A final confession: at the point of writing, I still have not made it to the very last page. It’s just too hard, really.

TRAPPED: REMARKABLE STORIES OF SURVIVAL FROM THE 2011 CANTERBURY EARTHQUAKE, by Martin van Beynen, foreword by Mayor Bob Parker (Penguin, $35).

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is a poet and historian.
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