Saturday, 2 November 2013

A History of Silence: A Memoir by Lloyd Jones (Penguin 2013)


My eldest sister once quipped after over-hearing someone blame Mother Nature for the Christchurch earthquakes, “it’s always a bloody woman’s fault.”  This snippet of conversation came back to me while I was reading Jones’s memoir which uses the series of Christchurch earthquakes as an analogy for the discovery and consequent rocking of his family’s foundations.  The land Christchurch was built on was originally a swap  - Jones suggests this fact was silenced, indeed forgotten, as the city and its inhabitants got on with life, until, as we know, the earthquakes brought forth liquefaction from the depths of the swamp back into Christchurch streets.  The reason why my sister’s quip came back to me is because the maternal line of Jones’s family history was most heavily silenced, and in engineering Christchurch for settlement Mother Nature had been to.  While I am not suggesting Jones blames his mother or grandmother, or indeed Mother Nature, the women’s silence about their past has had a profound effect on him, and in the memoir he seeks to give them a voice at a time when Mother Nature has been directing hers at Christchurch. 

            The memoir is told in an almost stream of consciousness way but with better punctuation.  One recollection leads to another and another and so on, therefore, the structure is not linear, readers move from the present to the past as Jones’s seeks to uncover his Grandparents on his mother and father’s side.  This style of narrative is engaging and I found at times I wanted to enter into the conversation where I found similarities with my own family history, which adds to the satisfaction of the reading experience.  Throughout Jones’s personal recollections and discoveries, the landscape enters.  Readers are taken from Christchurch post the September 2010 and February 2011 quakes, to Wales, around Petone and Wellington, and to a farm down south.  The land is shown to move, to meld, to hide and uncover, much as Jones’s family history does throughout the narrative. 

            While I acknowledge the landscape as a central motif in Jones’s memoir I feel a bit ambivalent about the inclusion of the Christchurch earthquakes, and by someone not from Christchurch or having had direct experience of the quakes.  The ethical concern of whose story it is to tell comes into play, as it does when delving into family history when a writer ends up speaking for members of their family who cannot answer back.  But then at no time does Jones suggest that he had direct experience of the quakes, rather he records his perspective and observations as an outsider.

In some ways, Jones is also an outsider to his family’s narrative.  While he lives in the same house as his parents, he knows little of their background or how previous life experiences have shaped them.  At times he acknowledges that imagination fills the gap between what he has heard and what official documents reveal.  Jones has a history of pushing the boundaries of narrative perspective, some critics slammed his adoption of a female perspective in Hand Me Down World and Biografi pushed the boundaries of fact and fiction.  Jones takes risks with narrative - he tries new perspectives, which always means his work is thought provoking and has the potential to be contentious.

            In some ways the memoir reminded me of Jones’s novel The Book of Fame (2000) which recounts the journey of The Originals rugby team to the United Kingdom in 1905.  That novel is about belonging, feeling a sense of self, and of course, in both the memoir and the novel there is a historical element which weaves together fact and imagination.  While The Book of Fame is about a team of heroes who help forge the identity of a new nation, Jones’s memoir is about forging the identity of a family in a new country, while still seeing elements of the self in the old one.  While The Book of Fame has poetic elements, the poetic is a little stretched at times in the memoir, but what both novels show is that the past never leaves us.

            Jones came to speak to the class when I attended the IIML.   As he spoke, outside, down one of those steep pedestrian walkways that link The Terrace to the city, a two storey wooden villa was burning.  The grey and black smoke was immense.  Thankfully the house was abandoned; years ago it had been set alight by a jilter lover whose girlfriend perished in the flames.  On reflection, it now seems appropriate that Jones spoke to the class on the same day as the fire because what I especially liked about Jones’s book are his descriptions of Wellington and the surroundings areas.  In my mind I could walk in the suburbs he mentioned, and see not only the physical landscape but imagine the emotional and historical connections to place.  The memoir shows that much like family history, the land is like a palimpsest that is continually written on over and over.

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