There are lots of books about an individual’s self-discovery, exploration of different cultures, and relationships with others. But the stories we remember are those that wield language as deftly as a surgeon wielding a scalpel. A straight cut here, a cross-cut there, and the heart of the matter is laid open for the audience. Such is the writing in Mary Lowry’s The Earthquake Machine. The protagonist is Rhonda, 14 years old, who wants desperately to escape the “beigedom of her parents’ house,” secretly wishes her body stays “thin and angular, like the boys at school,” and thinks the only person who is honest with her is her parents’ gardener, Jesus. At times the novel is painful to read, disturbing, even, but resonating, nonetheless.One of the passages that resonates is how Rhonda views her secret visits to Jesus, who lives in an old, abandoned servant’s quarters in her parents’ backyard. The small building is hidden by a sprawling rose bush, and Rhonda visits Jesus only at dusk, the moment she thinks of “as the purple time, no longer day, but not yet night, a time when rules could be broken and borders of language and country and skin color could be crossed with ease” (9). That suspension between two states of being is symbolized by Rhonda, herself, who is no longer a little girl, but is not quite an adult woman, either. She breaks rules by speaking with Jesus without her parents’ permission; she has crossed the physical border of the rose bush and its thorns, leaving behind, for a time, her parents’ beige lives. On the other side of the rosebush border is Mexico, represented by Jesus. Rhonda is immersed in Spanish, and when she learns to speak the language, she keeps that secret as well, forming a separate identity that only exists beyond the border, where Mexico comes alive with Jesus’ stories of where he grew up and places he visited.
Rhonda uses her other identity when, on a river trip, she leaves her friends and journeys across the river to Mexico. Just as she did in her parents’ backyard, she abandons her identity as “Rhonda” and slips into a different identity. First, she is a lost Angel of God, appearing to a bartender who has visions caused by eating peyote, then she is Angel, a homeless, orphaned boy, then she is Angel, a young woman. Her time spent in Mexico is anything but beige boredom; her life turns into a series of rollicking adventures in which she starves herself to maintain her boyish disguise, escapes from a gang of young boy thieves, falls in with a band of women highway robbers who disguise themselves as men as they rob travelers, then proudly revert to women to appear in their local towns and villages; and finally ends up with Jesus and his mother. At this point in the story, she retains the name Angel, but slowly reverts back to being a young woman, aware of her sexuality, the separation and fluidity of gender, and the questions of faith and its representations of the Divine. After an earthquake shakes Mexico City, killing Jesus and his mother, Angel (Rhonda) retraces her steps back to the border from where she first crossed, carrying with her “her anger and her desire”.
Anger, desire, violence, and romance appear linked in some of the disturbing scenes of the story. Towards the beginning of the novel, Rhonda experiences an orgasm while bathing. Her mother Louise May mistakenly believes that Rhonda has drowned in the bathtub, and even though Rhonda sits up, alive and startled by her mother’s scream, Louise May slowly descends into mental instability. She and Rhonda’s father begin arguing, each argument escalating in anger. The final violent act occurs late one night as Rhonda, fearful for her mother’s safety, lays in bed, reading a romance novel and experiencing the pain and discomfort of her first period. Tom, the father, leaves a handgun on a wooden shelf, “in case you ever decide to do the right thing,” he tells Louise May. Rhonda hears the blast, runs to her parents’ bedroom, and sees her father beside “what was left of her mother’s head.” Rhonda’s blood, the precursor to creation, is juxtaposed with Louise May’s blood, the product of violent destruction. The romance novel Rhonda was reading, filled with scenes of budding romance and desire, is juxtaposed with the anger, violence, and despair of a dying relationship between Rhonda’s parents.
Another disturbing scene of roiling emotions occurs towards the end of the novel, when Rhonda crosses back into the U.S. She decides to find Mansk, the river-trip guide who had seduced her but had then rejected her advances when he was reminded of her age. Rhonda has held her anger at his rejection close in her heart, and wants nothing more than to use her knife to stab him, to cause him as much physical pain as she felt at what she sees as his betrayal to their own emotions. On her way to his shack, she thinks about that moment, before she crossed: “Mansk had touched her and it was as if he’d robbed her of something. She thought she’d been damaged forever; she’d thought the dust knocked from her wings would never regenerate. But the desire had stayed with her” (293). Burning with thoughts of revenge, Rhonda attempts to destroy Mansk’s pottery kiln and pottery, but is stopped by Mansk himself. After a struggle in which Mansk is slightly wounded by Rhonda’s knife, Mansk tells her, “It’s not just you hurting. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. . . . I’ve had nightmares.” Rhonda realizes, then, that what she really wanted was “to have power over the man whose memory she had given too much influence.” As Rhonda takes control of the sex, she does not feel satisfied in her heart. Although she has gained power, she still feels empty. It is only later, after they have bathed away sweat and blood, and fallen asleep, that she awakes, and has an epiphany that stems from the faith she has in herself, and her belief in a goddess that helped save her life.
Thus, by the end of the novel, Rhonda has matured into a strong, independent woman. She uses her knowledge of her father’s verbal and mental abuse of Louise May to ensure she can live with her own godmother, Nina; her vow to publicize her father’s brutality causes him to give in to her demands. Rhonda cherishes her friends, who stand beside her and support her as she tells her father what he must do. And, she finally experiences closure from her mother’s death, as she, her friends, and Nina visit her mother’s grave, carrying a picnic lunch and a Virgin of Guadalupe candle. During that “purple time” of evening, when borders of life and death can be crossed, and new identities slipped on, the group finishes their “celebration picnic”, packs up their picnic things, and leaves the candle, “glowing in the deepening dusk.”