ON THE other side of the world lies The Island, once part of the British Empire. A postcolonial, mixed-race, and modern country, its culture is, none the less, recognisably shaped by British ideals and values, including Anglicanism. Disaster strikes: a small warning earthquake, followed by a far more devastating one: 253 people lose their lives, among them numerous children. Many more are horribly injured. Homes are destroyed and buildings are damaged, including the iconic Anglican Cathedral in Aberdeen.
If that sounds a little like the 2011 earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, A. N. Wilson is at pains to reject the suggestion. In an introductory note, the author emphasises that the book is not intended to be a roman-à-clef about Christchurch. Instead, he says, it is simply a story about a group of people caught up in an earthquake and its aftermath.
For the Quake, as it becomes known, changes everything. The seismic ripple tears down houses, forges unlikely bonds, and shakes the foundations of everything that the Islanders hold dear.
We meet Ingrid, a student in her twenties, emerging from an affair with her tutor. Her mother, Cavan, is a radio host, and the Voice of the Island. We encounter Eleanor, who has been Dean of the cathedral for the past three years, after a former life as an academic in Oxford. She has a vexed relationship with her Bishop, Dionne, nicknamed “the Pontiff” by Eleanor’s adored father, a priest who has retired to Winchester. Father and daughter Skype daily, as Eleanor seeks to draw on the wisdom of another age to help her work out what is required of her.
There is the Green MP Deirdre Hadley, who comes into her own during the disaster, and a corrupt businessman who is determined to exploit the situation. A chorister in the cathedral choir dies in the Quake, presenting Eleanor with a particularly painful pastoral situation. And, later, the people of Aberdeen work out some of their grief in a community performance of the great tragedy of Euripides The Trojan Women.
Among the chaos and rebuilding of Aberdeen, two people fall in love. It is unexpected, although, paradoxically, the reader knows this from the start of the book.
Aftershocks is partly a love story, touching and sweet, but it is much more besides. It is a shimmering, beautiful, and profound exploration of life, death, and morality, and is utterly compelling.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
A. N. Wilson
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