We Can Make a Life

North & South - - Monthly Review -

Chessie Henry (Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity Press, $35)

Here is all the ev­i­dence you need that good writ­ing can make some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary out of the rel­a­tively or­di­nary. Chessie Henry’s fam­ily is re­mark­able in many ways, but they’re not pub­lic fig­ures or megaachiev­ers in any field. Through the lens of her prose, how­ever, they as­sume a very im­pres­sive stature.

Her writ­ing is vivid and sen­su­ous, mean­ing this book is that rarest of things for a me­moir: en­gross­ing. We know we’re in for a so­phis­ti­cated take on the form in the first pages. As with many child­hood rem­i­nis­cences, we be­gin be­side by the sea, but the weather here is any­thing but golden. It’s bleak and windy and the sand is black.

To a large ex­tent, this is the story of Henry’s par­ents’ mar­riage. Chris is a doc­tor and Es­ther is em­ployed pretty much full-time as a mother of five, in­clud­ing scene-steal­ing Ru­fus, Henry’s younger brother, who is born with Down Syn­drome (“What’s that thing I have?”).

They lead ad­ven­tur­ous lives of drift­ing around and OES. Pre- chil­dren, Es­ther works for Lon­don fash­ion de­sign­ers Elizabeth and David Emanuel at the time of Princess Diana’s wed­ding dress, and Chris prac­tises ex­treme medicine in Hon­duras for a time. The early spirit of ad­ven­ture never leaves ei­ther of them.

Henry fal­ters only when she lets her par­ents take over the story. This is also a book about the fam­ily’s per­sonal trauma re­lat­ing to first the Can­ter­bury and then the Kaikōura earth­quakes. These events are told through tran­scripts of in­ter­views Henry had with her par­ents. Chris tells the Can­ter­bury tale; Es­ther de­scribes Kaikōura. It’s a nice piece of pat­tern­ing, but it falls short be­cause 26-year-old Henry is a much better sto­ry­teller than ei­ther her mother or fa­ther.

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