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Chessie Henry's candid memoir about post-quake trauma

Coming to terms: Chessie Henry.

In We Can Make a Life, the young author writes about the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes and their effects on her nearest and dearest.

How do you write about the personal costs of collective trauma? The Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes of 2011 and 2016 affected a whole country; there is always a worse story of ongoing grief or unthinkable memories. In her first book, Chessie Henry addresses this dilemma – or does she sidestep it? – through a family memoir built around her father’s work as a rural GP and his involvement in Christchurch on February 22, 2011, and after the Kaikoura earthquake.

It is an endearing portrait of a close and loving family – a tribute to her parents’ upbringing in England and their characteristically intrepid honeymoon in Africa; setting up home in distant New Zealand; and raising five children (Henry is the eldest) in beautiful Clarence, north of Kaikoura. These are punctuated by the challenges of a year in Tokelau – dengue fever, box jellyfish, her father’s depression, “the intense loneliness and difficulty of island life” – and, back in New Zealand, her parents’ temporary separation when she was 13. “It was a shitty time, a low point along our long, undulating road.”

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This road is signposted by her family’s experience of the earthquakes, recounted in a series of transcribed interviews with her father, mother and brother. These flashbacks – the appalling retrieval of live and dead bodies from the crushed CTV building, the anguish of leaving a treasured family home, the impossible burden of a rural doctor rushing to plug holes in an increasingly permeable dyke – are told falteringly, as if her three subjects are still trying to make sense of the events.

The extent of her father’s declining physical and emotional state is better reflected in his emails to a colleague. Subject: “burnout”. “I feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed. I can see no way out of my work responsibilities and no way forward from the emotional and financial disaster of the house we can’t even visit … I don’t know which of the outcomes will get me first, but I feel certain this will not end well.” This was written in April 2017, a week before he received a New Zealand Bravery Medal for his service during the 2011 earthquake.

Drawing a straight line through the undulating road is the story of a young writer grappling with her subject matter – writing at her desk in a cold, leaky Wellington flat; talking over beers at a bar; reading her parents’ letters and emails; clinging to summertime memories of her and her brothers fishing, boating and sleeping on a tarp under the stars.

“I’m worried this is turning into a book all about me,” she confides to an old friend from high school. “That’s OK, I think,” replies her friend. “It’s probably coming out just how it’s meant to.”

It is OK. Henry has a clear voice, a fine sense of place and an unsentimental honesty in grappling with the unwieldy matters of family, collective trauma and writing.

WE CAN MAKE A LIFE, by Chessie Henry (Victoria University Press, $35)

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.