Monday, 7 November 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Christchurch Ruptures by Katie Pickles

Christchurch Ruptures had some interesting content, but if I'd had to read the words 'rupture', 'ruptures', 'rupturing' or 'ruptured' one more time, I'd be writing to you from a hospital bed after a ruptured brain aneurysm. 

I suppose it's good Pickles kept relating everything back to her thesis, but I wish she'd been able to do so without such constant and overt reiteration of one word. To give you a taste, here's an excerpt from a page-and-a-half of text in the conclusion: 
The ruptures identified in this book indicate how the city might regroup and move on. Chapter 1, with its discussion of ruptured landscapes, warns of being ideologically trapped in the past. [2 sentences excluded]. The rupturing of Christchurch has shown that being open to continual change is the best way forward.  
The discussion of ruptured peoples and heritage in Chapter 2 suggests that respect for all peoples, regardless of race or ethnicity, and regardless of length of residency in the city, is the way to proceed. [5 sentences excluded]. 
Chapter 3 indicates the possibility of learning from the strengths of the past. The Canterbury earthquakes have ruptured 'the People's Republic of Christchurch', bringing that radical heritage into question. [3 sentences excluded].
Chapter 4 reveals that conformity and opposition to diversity is unproductive. Post-quake Christchurch has the chance to rise from a ruptured Gothic identity as a creative and inclusive place. (p. 169-170)
It goes on, but you get the picture. Now that I've got that out of my system, I can talk about the book itself. 

As you may be able to tell from the tagline, it's more focused on the history of Christchurch and how this has determined post-quake responses, rather than post-quake Christchurch itself. I didn't know that much about the history of Christchurch - apart from the whole pilgrim thing - so I found this to be valuable. I also found a lot of value in the way the town's history was framed in terms of tension and coexistence between social conservatism (originating in the 'God's own Paradise' attitude of the first Anglican settlers) and radicalism (expressed in the many social movements and prominent reformers centred in Christchurch, including Kate Shepherd and Norman Kirk). However, this did lead to many intriguing local personalities and movements being brought up and dismissed in short order, and these sometimes read like a laundry list. 

In fact, overall - and even excluding the whole 'rupture' thing - Pickle's writing could have been more engaging. Nonetheless, it was straight-forward and accessible, which is far preferable to over-intellectualism. 

Another reason I appreciated the historical focus is that I was already familiar with what is discussed when the focus did switch to the post-quake environment, particularly the debate surrounding the fate of the Cathedral, and I suspect many New Zealanders will find the same. But we do tend to have selective memory when it comes to Christchurch, invoking the 'Kia Kaha' spirit when convenient, and just as conveniently forgetting that their struggle is ongoing the rest of the time. Pickle highlights that this struggle isn't only related to the physical environment, but it also discursive in nature: how do Cantabrians re-constitute a city with a contested but highly mythologised history, and where different experiences have lead to a proliferation of opinions over what 're-building' looks like. It's a question that resonates much further than New Zealand, and touches deeply on identity. 

Pickle does draw some conclusions, as you can see from what I quoted above, but they're haphazardly thrown in right at the close of each chapter, and then at the end of the book, and they were cursory. Sometimes it also seemed as though they were only tangentially related to what she had been talking about. I'm sure that they were extremely relevant, but I think that the historical focus (with the exception of Chapter 5) and the short length of the concluding paragraphs meant that what she regarded as the modern-day implications or lessons to be learnt weren't drawn out quite as explicitly as I would have liked. 

This book has left me with two conclusions. The first is that if look at the word 'rupture' too much, it looks as if it's spelled wrong. The second, more charitable one comes from reading both Christchurch Ruptures and the excellent The First Migration: Maori Origins 3000BC - AD 1450 and is that BWB Texts, the imprint who published these books, is an invaluable resource for anyone looking to educate themselves on New Zealand's past, present and future without breaking the bank. Their titles cover a wide range of interesting topics, spanning history, anthropology, economics, sociology, medicine and science, as well as memoir and many of the authors are well-known New Zealand academics and personalities, including Michael King, Atholl Anderson and Claudia Orange. I only wish that Australia had something similar (the closest thing I can think of is the Quarterly Essay), but I'm going back to New Zealand at Christmas so I'll stock up on more BWBs then. 

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