We Can Make a Life
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.