Incredibly powerful read
We Can Make a Life — Chessie Henry (Victoria University Press, $35) reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books
I began to read this expecting a straight up narrative of the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes and their effect on the Henry family, principally the author’s GP father, Chris. It was so much more than this.
At the book’s heart is Christopher Henry, a doctor whose bravery and selflessness in helping those trapped in the CTV building in 2011’s earthquake has been publicly honoured. His daughter, Chessie, takes her time leading up to these events, and those of Kaikoura in 2016.
The first few pages of the book are a 2017 letter from Chris describing the danger in which the demands of his job as a rural GP are putting him, his patients and his colleagues. It’s a terrifying thing to read, the sense of imminent collapse, a call for help and urgent action. The placement of this letter is deliberate — the reader engages with this family immediately.
Chessie goes on to describe her parents; their childhoods in England, the serendipity of their meeting, their honeymoon adventure across Africa and their emigration to New Zealand while Esther was seven months pregnant with Chessie. We get a sense of restless souls, grabbing life and following where it may lead. There quickly follow four more children and the joy and challenges that a large family bring. The family accompany Chris to Tokelau where he is GP to a tiny island community — the trials and adventures thrown at them are incredible to read. There is so much going on for this intrepid family, so much love, and so much freely spoken emotion. Chessie makes us worry about them all, and they all worry about Chris.
By the time we get to the earthquakes we are wholly invested, and it’s a tribute to the writer that I feel I know every one of them. The unedited narratives of Chris and Esther, recorded during car journeys and prompted by Chessie’s questioning, are like a punch to the gut. This is an extraordinary story of New Zealanders caught in the most dire moments of our recent history. It’s a story of resilience and one of advocacy for awareness of burnout in those in which we put our trust and the responsibility for our lives. An incredibly powerful read.