How the Christchurch earthquakes inspired British writer AN Wilson’s new novel

by Sally Blundell / 17 November, 2018
AN Wilson: an “unconvincing atheist”. Photo/Alamy

AN Wilson: an “unconvincing atheist”. Photo/Alamy

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AN Wilson has put aside his historical biographies for a novel inspired by a visit to quake-devastated Christchurch – a city where he expects the book will get a tough reception.

British biographer, novelist, journalist and essayist Andrew (AN) Wilson knew there had been an earthquake in Christchurch. A “small earthquake”, he says on the phone from his home in Camden Town, London, had been widely reported in the UK.

But nothing prepared him for the wrecked city he saw during three days in the garden city last year. “I had no idea when I was driving into Christchurch from the airport what I was going to see – namely, a city that had been destroyed. I was staying bang in the middle of the city and I found it haunting, heartbreakingly awful yet wonderful – it was so interesting in a gruesome way.”

What did he do? What would the author of 50 works of fiction and nonfiction, including a seminal biography of Queen Victoria (recently dramatised in the new television series Victoria) do? He bought a DVD of the earthquake from the city’s museum and began to write a work of fiction, a love story set in a colonial city in a faraway land that suffers a life-changing earthquake.

Why not a work of non-fiction? Despite his reputation as an accomplished biographer – he will complete his book on Albert, Prince Consort, before the bicentenary of his birth in August next year – Wilson regards himself primarily as a novelist, and besides, he says, Fiona Farrell’s 2015 investigation into the Christchurch earthquakes, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, “is so good. It would be ridiculous for someone coming from outside to write that story.”

Even as a work of fiction, he insists, Aftershocks is inspired by “but not about” New Zealand. “It is set in an imaginary place,” he writes in the foreword. “It is not intended to be a roman-à-clef about Christchurch. I have spent less than three weeks in New Zealand and could not possibly hope to write a book about it, even if that had been my intention.”

Rather, he says, his imaginary place draws on a number of postcolonial countries: Fiji, Australia, several African nations, as well as New Zealand.

There are some ouch moments. Aftershocks is set in the city of Aberdeen, “a Victorian colonial city” in a country called The Island. Locals call themselves Huias, the indigenous peoples are the Tangata, there are references to an 1840 treaty of “HuruHuru”. But as a city hit by an earthquake, “Aberdeen” is credible in all its destructed detail. There’s the English monarch trembling on her pedestal, the student army, debate over the cathedral (the bishop wants it down), the collapse of the CTV – here the IBC – building, even the blind busker in the Square singing through his considerable repertoire.

Despite never having felt an earthquake in his life, Wilson describes the events of February 22, 2011, remarkably well: the floor tilting like the deck of a ship in a hurricane, the dust, the desperation, the fear, the indelible line between “before” and “after” that continues to score our personal and collective history.

“All your metaphors and language: ‘you are as safe as houses’, ‘you have the earth under your feet’ – houses are not safe, the earth does not stay still,” says Wilson. “It shakes up and down, you have liquefaction and whole roads disappear – it undermines any certainty you have.”

Christchurch readers, he agrees, will be the toughest audience. As he says, if somebody wrote a novel about the village where he grew up and towns he has lived in and had only been there for three weeks, “I would be putting the book down every night and saying, ‘What do they know about it?’” But Aftershocks plays out against a wider reckoning of colonisation, history, collective memory and religion, to give it more-universal themes.

Against the unfolding destruction of the earthquake, we follow two recent arrivals to “The Island”: Digby, an atheist and scholar of Greek tragedy, and Eleanor, dean of the cathedral, a “tribal Anglican who had been ordained as a priest”. According to our narrator, Ingrid, they were “the inseparables”. Then came the earthquake “and everything changed”.

The dramatic extent of this change underlines the plot of the book. As Wilson says, when we first meet Eleanor, she is quite reserved, “and I think if the imagined city in which she is living hadn’t been shaken up, she would have just gone on being very buttoned up – and unresolved”.

Eleanor’s resolution mirrors the necessarily changing self-perception of the city itself. The art gallery, “the dear old Dyce”, is hung with colonial re-imaginings of the settlement of country, an outdated mythology established on the precarious base of a city founded on a wetland with a cathedral built not of timber but of stone (for the cathedral architect, Wilson resurrects Oswald Fish, the “mediocre 19th-century architect” who featured in his 1983 novel Who Was Oswald Fish?).

As the narrator attests, the city now is postcolonial, post-war, post-earthquake. Even religion “can never be quite the same … Are we all post-Christians now?” The main characters’ conversations are inevitably driven by religion – Wilson himself was in his thirties when he declared himself a “born-again atheist”; in 2009, aged 59, he broke cover as a Christian convert – as he wrote in the New Statesman, he was “a very unconvincing atheist”.

In Aftershocks, Eleanor holds on to a fairly conservative form of Anglicanism, at least before the quake. Digby, on the other hand, is immersed in classical literature, in which human misfortune is triggered by the “frivolous malice” of the gods.

“Inevitably, when you have a quake, theological questions arise, even if you are not a religious person,” says Wilson. “You’re thinking, either it is proof that the universe is totally impersonal, or you have a large body of people loosely or directly involved with Christian tradition and an earthquake is one of those things that challenges your faith.

“Some people think the Christian religion is essentially happy because it is telling you Jesus rose from the dead, therefore even death, even the death of the person you loved most in the world, doesn’t matter very much. But others, probably the majority throughout history, feel Christianity is essentially tragic. At its centre is a young man being tortured on the cross and he is asking questions that will never be resolved in your lifetime – the silence on the cross is never going to provide you with an answer. That runs through this book.”

In these deliberations, Aftershocks shares the concerns of many of Iris Murdoch’s books. “A lot of issues she explores are about human love and the sacred and the profane being sometimes at odds and sometimes running along the same path,” he agrees.

“I believe there is a possibility, whether you are speaking religiously or metaphorically, of redemption coming out of a tremendous upset, and that thinking you can hold on to the past is never going to get you anywhere.

“When a major crisis like a war, an earthquake, a terrible illness or losing someone you love happens, you then decide, have I been completely defeated by this or is there a future? Is there a life after this? I hope this novel is seen as a very optimistic novel.”

AFTERSHOCKS, by AN Wilson (Atlantic, $45)

Another on the list

The prolific AN Wilson’s past works include biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Leo Tolstoy, CS Lewis, Hilaire Belloc, John Milton, John Betjeman, Iris Murdoch, Jesus, St Paul, Dante Alighieri, Adolf Hitler, Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II, Charles Darwin and the city of London. He has also made studies of eras in The Victorians, After the Victorians, Our Times and The Elizabethans and written on religious topics. The 18 novels he wrote before Aftershocks have included works based on Captain Cook’s final voyage (Resolution), the life of Josiah Wedgwood (The Potter’s Hand) and the Profumo Affair (Scandal).

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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