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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

if there is no shelter by Tracey Slaughter

This short novella was a runner up in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in the UK. Twenty-eight short chapters which were inspired by an information notice pinned to a wall. What to do in the event of an emergency. Emergencies, such as earthquakes, that feel so common in New Zealand, that we even have the annual drill where people get under their office desks at a designated time on a certain day. This book contains many of the well know phrases as chapter headings, always in lower case:

alert those around you

don’t use lifts – keep left on stairs

do not attempt to return to your building until the all clear is given

know the location of all exits

leave in a calm and orderly manner

listen for official warnings.

When you hear them all like this, they do provide a natural and unique narrative, which lends itself beautifully to the way this book is structured.

The narrative starts with two instructions ‘If there is no shelter / remove yourself to a place of safety if possible’. A woman is poised to leave her marriage. The story is set in Christchurch, although it is never named, decimated by earthquakes and the instability of the land, which turned to liquid in many low-lying regions and brought many New Zealanders into contact with the word ‘liquefaction’ for the first time. Soft, sandy soils turned to mud, swallowing houses, cars and roads, where once there was solid ground.

This is the back drop to the story, the upheaval of the quake and the impact on the lives of everyday people. There were two quakes, one in September 2010, weakening buildings, causing havoc, but not killing anyone. Then in February 2011 the fatal quake, so much devastation. In the book we find a father, unhappy to venture back into his house, happier in his garden tent, knowing it will not collapse and harm him. Even with winter approaching.

There was so much new language that appeared after the 2011 quakes; the city zoned with areas designated as ‘Red Zone’, where houses were deemed too dangerous to live in. Whole streets given a death sentence, while many long-term residents did not want to leave their homes and felt they could be rebuilt. But the land on which they sat was too unstable. These desolate, no-go zones needed security guards to keep residents and looters out.

The story is narrated in the first person. I was convinced on the first reading that somewhere, lost in a snippet of dialogue, was a name for this narrator, but looking back over and over I cannot find it. Our unnamed narrator has written her husband a letter. An end of relationship, I’m leaving, letter. She had finished it on the day of the quake. Now her husband is in hospital, injured in the building he kept telling people didn’t feel safe. That feeling caught me, reminding me of the multi-storey hotel I stayed in after the first quake, where I could fit a finger into the crack down the wall of my tenth level bedroom. That sense of not right, not safe. That hotel that was demolished after the second quake.

We move back and forth in flashbacks to moments of an affair with the husband’s work colleague. The lust and the animal passion of it. The hotel room with plaster dust dropping from the ceilings. Now the narrator cannot get to her red zoned home to retrieve the letter. It is doomed to stay there forever, or at least until the bulldozers move in.

The chapter called ‘do not pull the emergency cord’ is one of my favourites, for those painful little details:

“I finished the letter to my husband on the day of the quake. But I’d been trying to write it for weeks. When I couldn’t find the words I would walk through the house to convince my body it was capable of leaving him. I’d watch the proof of my footprints, tacking on the remu, tracing a slowed getaway. There were only seventeen steps from the edge of our double bed to our front door. I even trekked with a suitcase, as far as the carboot, to show my left hand the grip it would need. The push off the hip to hump it into the trunk…”

Visceral details, the preparations to leave, counting the steps, rehearsing, in a complete reversal of the wedding rehearsal. Wonderful little details that make the story so very good. She was preparing to shatter everything, just before the world shattered itself.

Tracey has written the book in chunks. Chunks that repeat the broken pieces of falling masonry, the broken lives that remain. I am writing this review now as I stay for a few days in Christchurch, a week short of the tenth anniversary of the big quake. We walked along the riverside memorial this evening, reading the names of all those who lost their lives, cared into the riverbank stone, above the underlit steps down to the river, little memorials, flowers, painted stones, a birthday remembered a couple of weeks back, a vase with a dry crinkled flower stem. All painful reminders of a trauma that lurks beneath the surface of the city.

Tracey was interviewed about the flash fiction format on the Bath Flash Fiction Awards website. I think it is worth quoting what she says about the pleasures:

“…that flash can take you in a rush, plunge you into characters’ senses, keep you fed on bursts of electricity, even when life holds scant time for sustained writing. I thrive on the little fixes it gives, the short stints it lets creativity off the leash, so there’s always a quick source of exhilaration in a schedule that sometimes doesn’t leave much breathing space.”

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

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