Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Finch Publishing; 217 pages; 2018.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie is a retired academic and translator whose memoir The Erratics won the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize. Last month the book was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.
It’s a compelling account of dealing with elderly parents — one of whom is trying to kill the other — from afar.
A memoir about a dysfunctional family
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario.
You grew up in Canada, on a big sprawling isolated property on the prairies of Alberta, with a younger sister, and a mother who had a vibrant, mercurial, some might say challenging, personality and an easy-going, hen-pecked father.
You now live in Sydney, Australia, where you have raised a family of your own. You have been estranged from your parents for a long time. In fact, they have disinherited both you and your sister, and your mother goes around telling everyone that she only has one daughter and that she died many years ago. Or sometimes she says that her two daughters disappeared decades ago and despite hiring investigators on several continents they have never been found.
Then you get a call to say your mother has been hospitalised unexpectedly. She has broken a hip.
When you fly to the other side of the world to visit her, you discover she’s as cantankerous and difficult as ever. But you are shocked to see that your father is all skin and bones. You think he might have a terminal disease. Then it slowly dawns on you that your mother has been starving him deliberately and that he has a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. It is a disturbing and frightening realisation.
What do you do? You (and your sister) do whatever you can to ensure your mother is kept in hospital for as long as possible so that you can plan your father’s “escape” — the last thing you want is your mother returning home to continue her abusive treatment, for he will die at her hand. But how do you convince the authorities that your mother is crazy and hellbent on killing her husband when she’s got such a forceful personality and a long track record of telling lies? How do you get them to understand that you have your father’s interests at heart and not your own?
A compulsive read
That is essentially the scope of this gripping memoir, one that I read in one, long compulsive sitting, unable to tear my eyes from the page.
Laveau-Harvie writes in an easy-going style that feels light as air despite dealing with dark and troubling issues and emotions. There’s no self-pity. Instead, there’s lots of honesty, pragmatism and self-deprecating (often sarcastic) humour. It’s heartbreaking and frightening by turn. Occasionally, it almost feels like a story that American TV producer and comedy writer Larry “Curb Your Enthusiasm” David might have come up with, it really is that funny and the family so dysfunctional.
But underpinning the narrative is a quiet strength and an almost ruthless quest to sort things out even if it means revisiting the horrors of the past. The Erratics is a brave and sometimes harrowing book, one that deserves a wide audience, but it’s also a testament to family love and the ties that bind.
UPDATE: Kate, who blogs at Books are my Favourite and Best, has also reviewed this book. She has a slightly different take on it to me.
This is my 2nd book for #AWW2019. It took some effort to track it down in Western Australia, where I spent two weeks last month. It hasn’t been published outside of Australia so, sadly, it will be even harder to source if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. The publisher ceased trading at the end of 2018, but I believe the book has since been picked up by 4th Estate in Australia where it will be republished in mid-March. To purchase a copy outside of Australia, your best bet would be to place an order with Readings.com.au — sadly, it won’t be a cheap exercise.