Truth is that, while I like to read at least some of the Stella Prize shortlist, I didn’t have Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir, The erratics, on my high priority list, though the more I heard about it, the more intrigued I became. However, it was winning the prize that tipped it over into my must-read category. What a challenging read it is.
The erratics is the story of how Laveau-Harvie and her sister responded to their estranged aging parents’ needs as infirmity caught up with them. Canadian-born Laveau-Harvie had, decades earlier, escaped the family home in rural Alberta moving, eventually, to Australia. Her younger sister had also escaped, though not so far. She lived in Vancouver. It all came to a head when their 94-year-old mother’s hipbone “crumbles and breaks” putting her in hospital. Laveau-Harvie and her sister regroup to help – their father, in particular, who, they discover, had been being systematically starved by their mother. The story of this dysfunctional family, and the sisters’ actions to save their father and ensure their mother is deemed incompetent, never able to return home, is arresting.
Equally arresting is Laveau-Harvie’s writing. It’s not surprising that she won the Stella (not to mention the Finch Memoir Prize and being shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards), because the writing grabs your attention with an impressive sureness of tone and language. It’s particularly impressive because it is, apparently, 70-something Laveau-Harvie’s first book.
The back-cover blurb of my edition concludes with: “a ferocious, sharp, darkly funny and wholly compelling memoir of families, the pain they can inflict and the legacy they leave, The erratics has the tightly coiled, compressed energy of an explosive device – it will take your breath away”. It does all of that.
First, it’s an astonishing story of a mother who seems incapable of the love we expect from a parent. I’ll share the quote that you’ll have read before if you’ve read about this book:
One of the few coherent messages my mother repeated to me and my sister as we grew up, a message she sometimes delivered with deceptive gentleness and a touch of sadness that we weren’t more worthy prey, was this one, and I quote: I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.
If you are a parent who feels guilty about mistakes you made in your parenting, you can rest easy after reading this (unless of course you are like Laveau-Harvie’s mother!) Most of us, I’m sure, made our mistakes inadvertently, not with the intent behind this woman’s behaviour. The problem in Laveau-Harvie’s family was compounded by the fact that their father, while not brutal like their mother, was weak, believing (or, at least accepting) everything his wife said about their daughters.
So, the story, itself, is compelling – in the strange behaviour of these two parents, and in the willingness of the daughters, despite being rejected by their mother, including being given no formal role in managing her affairs, to step in and do the hard stuff out of love for their father and, I guess, a sense of responsibility. But, in addition to the story, what makes this memoir particularly compelling is, as I’ve already said, the writing itself.
It’s a tight, spare read at just over 200 pages. It has stunning descriptions, but I’ll exemplify it with the metaphor contained in the title itself, a metaphor that draws from a geologic formation called the Foothills Erratics Terrain in the town nearest her parents’ home:
Countless years ago, the Okotoks Erratic fell in on itself and became unsafe to climb upon. It dominates the landscape, roped off and isolated, the danger it presents to anyone trespassing palpable and documented on the signs posted around it.
Unfortunately, Laveau-Harvie’s mother came with no such sign.
There is a deft handling of chronology, with the occasional bit of foreshadowing. And then there is the tone, which is achieved by a crisp story-telling style that is direct, colloquial, witty even, and that focuses on the facts with little explication, all the while conveying the challenges faced by the two sisters in negotiating their relationships with each other, their father and their mother. One of Laveau-Harvie’s techniques is to undercut a description or plan with a short, emphatic sentence like “That was the plan” or “I can’t fix this” or “I don’t do this”.
It’s an invidious situation, and you can’t help but feel their pain. She writes at one stage of not remembering certain events:
I do know this: where there is nothing, there must be pain; that’s why there is nothing. Be glad if you forget.
There’s another of those short concluding sentences – “Be glad if you forget”. It’s powerful.
The strongest part of the narrative concerns the relationship with her sister who, still living in Canada, is the person on-site, and who has always been less able distance herself from the pain. There’s a telling sentence about their choices of mementoes from the house:
I salvage a few other things … things from my childhood … my sister takes only things acquired by my mother after we had left home, heavy crystal goblets, silver serving plates, full dinner sets of translucent china. I want only the connection to the past, she wants never to feel it again.
So, this sister, the one who wants to distance the past takes on, at a cost to her health, more than Laveau-Harvie believes sensible: “I can see sinkholes of simmering resentment about to develop between us.” Laveau-Harvie explores the challenges of siblings negotiating the care of aging parents with the clear-eyed honesty she applies to the whole story, albeit, at times, I wondered how the sister felt about her depiction. Presumably, it’s ground they’ve well-covered between each other.
The book, then, is compelling and many readers, like Kim (Reading Matters), have found it a “compulsive read”. I did too. But, there was also something about the tone that disquieted me, as it did Kate (booksaremyfavouriteand best). This surprised me because I wasn’t expecting to feel this way. I love fearless honesty. It’s one of the reasons (besides her writing) that I like Helen Garner so much. She is not afraid to say the hard, unpalatable things. And yet, I found it difficult at times here. I think it’s because I felt some of this “honesty” was attended by an unkindness, by a willingness to laugh at another’s expense (though, admittedly, she also frequently laughs at her own).
An example is her description of the array of carers she and her sister put in place for their father. It’s funny, and has an element of truth, recognisable by anyone who has experienced the situation. But I bridle at name-calling, so “the gold-digger” and “the housekeeping slut” did not make me laugh. (I particularly hate women calling other women “slut”, even a “housekeeping” one – but that may just be me!) And then there’s the description of the breakage of some fine china freighted to Australia:
I imagine customs officers dropping the box because it has a label that says ‘Fragile’, satisfied at the sound of something delicate breaking.
Ultimately, however, although I couldn’t help reacting, occasionally, with the disquietude that I did – I realise I can’t judge. How can I, when the family life she experienced is beyond my ken? And, the ending is inspired. She draws on myths about the Okotoks to lay her mother – that “bitterly unhappy and vindictive old woman” – to a potentially more peaceful rest.
The erratics, then, is an impressive debut. It’s compelling and, significantly, it prompts us to think about the importance of love, responsibility and respect within all families.