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Vicki Laveau-Harvie, The erratics (#BookReview)

April 25, 2019

Book coverTruth 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.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeVicki Laveau-Harvie
The erratics
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2019 (Orig. pub. 2018)
217pp.
ISBN: 9781460758250

24 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2019 8:21 pm

    I might read this one day, but one practical note. Unless there was a (extremely unlikely) drug search, customs officers wouldn’t handle her box of fine china. It would pass through customs in a shipping container which would be unpacked by a freight forwarder.

  2. April 25, 2019 8:31 pm

    Nope, there is absolutely nothing about this book that appeals to me, prize or no prize!

  3. April 25, 2019 8:31 pm

    I’d be interested in your reaction, Bill. Fair enough re the customs officers, but whether it is customs people or freight people it doesn’t really changed her point does it?

  4. April 25, 2019 9:27 pm

    I have heard a lot about this book. Accounts about dealing with aging and infirm parents are fairly common. The fact that the mother was such a terrible person makes this one sound very different. Such people create so much misery in the world.

    • April 25, 2019 9:30 pm

      They sure do Brian. Anyhow, as you say, this woman’s behaviour certainly particularises the story.

  5. April 25, 2019 9:32 pm

    Thanks for the link, Sue. I agree it is disquieting in places and her tone was occasionally too sarcastic for my liking, but in my view these were minor quibbles. I think it’s a refreshingly honest memoir with a driving narrative pace, but I do wonder what her sister thinks of it all? And wouldn’t you love to hear the mother’s side of the story!

    • April 25, 2019 9:36 pm

      Thanks Kim. It’s a great book to talk about isn’t it, because there are so many layers to it. I’m a bit surprised it won, and yet I can see why too… If that makes sense!

  6. April 26, 2019 5:53 am

    This is the kind of book that makes you think your own family dysfunction isn’t really all that bad. Sounds pretty intense, but well done.

    • April 26, 2019 8:41 am

      Haha, Stefanie, it sure is. It IS intense but she doesn’t wallow, which keeps you reading, horrified but not ground down.

  7. April 26, 2019 7:13 am

    I heard the author interviewed on the ABC I believe it was quite awhile ago. Some of the tales she told were just bizarre but having grown up with a pretty dysfunctional alcoholic mother I could relate to some of her comments. I probably won’t go out of my way to read this but I did find her interview interesting.

    • April 26, 2019 8:45 am

      Thanks Pam. I think I caught the end of that interview, some time ago now as you say.

      I’m one of those lucky people who grew up in a supportive, loving family. At the time I didn’t realise that any family could be different – I mean different in the sense of providing dedicated love and support – but I sometimes think back now and wonder what some of my peers may have been experiencing.

      • April 26, 2019 11:37 am

        When you’re a child everything seems normal. In my experience it is when you become a young adult you realise how different families are.

        • April 26, 2019 4:18 pm

          Fascinating really how oblivious we can be when young, which can have its positives.

  8. April 26, 2019 9:21 am

    Thanks for this review, WG – it’s as honest and insightful as the book itself. The author did lots of media after the Stella win (including all major newspapers, ABC TV and radio, The Garret podcast and a Wheeler Centre event) and was often asked about her sister. Laveau-Harvie gave the MS to her sister to read, who said (I’m paraphrasing) I remember the events you describe, you have described them accurately, but my emotional reaction to them was different. Essentially, her truth about the events was not Laveau-Harvie’s truth. But that is the nature of memoir. And the sisters did not seem to fall out over it, although I have the impression that they aren’t close, despite loving one another dearly. Many of Laveau-Harvie’s interviews are available online and in podcast form, for those who are interested.

    • April 26, 2019 10:49 am

      Thanks very much Michelle.

      What you say here is what I would have imagined from my sense of Vicki and her sister in the book – ie that she’d have shown her sister the ms, and that the sister would have reacted in that way. I also got the impression from the book that they love each other and would support each other but are very different people. I will try to check out interviews in the next little while. I avoid listening to things like that or reading reviews before I write my posts – unless I’ve happened to catch them in my normal listening – as I want to not be swayed by what I read or hear. However, I had caught the end of the ABC interview a few months ago, which had intrigued me. And I had seen Kim’s and Kate’s reviews, as I wasn’t expecting at that time to read the book! I’m glad, though, now, that I have.

      • April 26, 2019 12:29 pm

        Yes, totally understand about not wanting to be swayed by the reviews of others. Super sensible. Do check out the interviews, though, if you have time. Vicki is a very thoughtful and intelligent interviewee and often expands on the issues raised by her memoir. Very much worth listening to.

        • April 30, 2019 6:49 pm

          I will do my best Michelle – I thought I’d responded to this but my devices sometimes don’t seem to post comments.

  9. April 30, 2019 3:25 pm

    Thanks for the link Sue.

    After hearing her speak, I still feel the same – buying most of the story but with a grain of doubt about some aspects. She was an engaging speaker, and I was almost completely won over (she was more forthcoming about her childhood trauma in person) until she mentioned the circumstances in which she shared the book with her sister, saying that if her sister didn’t like it, she could ‘write her own book’. Also, at the beginning, she said that one of the themes was sibling rivalry. Really? I didn’t see that… So, I was left, once again, with this niggle about her relationship with her sister, and why she couldn’t be more generous of spirit toward her.

    • April 30, 2019 6:53 pm

      Thanks very much Kate for responding. I do understand this niggle … I had a little bit of it too as you can see. And I thought later that the word I should have used instead of “kindness” is “generosity”.

      But clearly they had a terrible upbringing so it’s hard to make it more than a niggle – I must listen to some of the interviews.

      • April 30, 2019 8:17 pm

        The story from her youth that struck me the most was that when she finally made it to university (and was anticipating some independence), she turned up on the first day to discover that her mother had enrolled too.

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