The polymath writer A.N.Wilson returns to the novel in Aftershocks, working on the template of the 2011 earthquake which devastated Christchurch, New Zealand. He protests that the setting is not New Zealand but, as he admits, there are many recognisable similarities.
This is a novel about true love, its agonies, ecstasies, and eventual fulfillment, told in the voice of a young woman, Ingrid Ashe. She is the daughter of the female local radio broadcaster, Cavan Cliffe; and the mother/daughter relationship is almost unhealthily close. Ingrid’s is a lesbian love story in which her passion cannot develop until the earthquake upsets the structure of the city, destroys the cathedral and causes an all-round upheaval in personal relationships. The double life, as priest and classical scholar, of the cathedral’s Dean Eleanor, an English expat whose marriage has failed, is destroyed. Her infatuated admirer, Ingrid, is then free to pursue an obsessive relationship with her.
Wilson is witty, erudite and artful. Early on, Ingrid refers to ‘a gossipy person like me’, yet later she says: ‘Like I say, I’m not the gossipy type.’ Ingrid’s storytelling is enigmatic and tricky. She denies ‘that this narrative has been arranged to trick you, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire’, but also admits: ‘You’ll probably think I’m just constructing a silly narrative for the hell of it.’ There is a trick; but it’s ingenious rather than silly.
Wilson possesses a wide intellectual range, expanding on church history, classical tragedians and the Anglican tradition of English poets, and Ingrid displays a wealth of learning. Yet in her more colloquial register, she gives a commentary on the way we live now; as when a teenage girl becomes wracked with anorexia and guilt after her parents separate. In the end, Aftershocks stands above all as Ingrid’s confessional paean to lesbian love, both moving and intense.