Book in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful read

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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.

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