Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Canada, Finch Publishing, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vicki Laveau-Harvie

‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

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.

4th Estate edition

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 my 1st book for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist and 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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Finch Publishing, Lisa Nops, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka, travel, UAE

‘My Life in a Pea Soup’ by Lisa Nops

My-life-in-a-pea-soup

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Finch Publishing; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I have to confess that true stories about motherhood and raising children aren’t normally my cup of tea, so it may come as some surprise that I chose to read and review Lisa Nops’ My Life in a Pea Soup when the publisher pitched it to me. However, I quite like memoirs written by ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and I also like tales about expats, and this book ticked both those boxes.

Planned parenthood

The memoir is written by Lisa Nops, an Australian teacher who married Michael, an English civil engineer, in 1989. Michael’s job often involved working in exotic locations, so at various times the couple have lived in Australia, New Zealand, France, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.

When they decided to start a family Lisa was unable to fall pregnant, so four rounds of IVF treatment ensued, with no success. Then, in November 1997, she fell pregnant naturally and their daughter, Sally, was born in 1998.

Initially, Sally appeared to be a normal baby, albeit with an extremely quiet disposition, “inclined to sleep over and above doing anything else, not just at night but during the day as well”. But as time progressed Sally failed to meet ordinary developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking and speaking, was plagued by various illnesses, including ear infections, was prone to “staring intensely at objects and shadows” and began to flap her hands uncontrollably when excited.

When she was three, she was diagnosed with an unknown “neurological problem” that would require intensive speech, language and occupational therapy. There was the very real possibility that she would never learn to speak in sentences. Eventually she was diagnosed as autistic.

Search for a diagnosis

The book charts Lisa’s struggle to find out what was wrong with Sally, a journey that spanned several years — and continents. It was complicated by two factors: Lisa’s inability to fully accept that Sally’s slow development was anything other than her just being slow, and the family’s constant moving from one country to another.

Even when Lisa moved back to her home town of Canberra, Australia, to give Sally a better chance of medical care, things weren’t always straightforward. It certainly didn’t help that Michael remained behind in Sri Lanka to continue working, leaving Lisa to grapple with raising a child with special needs alone.

Once a proper diagnosis was made, it allowed the couple to become more focused on getting the right care and attention for Sally. But this was only half the battle. It did not alter the fact that they were “stuck” in a life they had never planned when they had decided to become parents. Lisa uses the analogy of planning a dream trip to Italy only to end up in Holland by accident:

It’s a different county to the one they had expected, where the countryside is flat and the people speak with guttural inflections. For a while they resent their holiday there; it wasn’t what they had planned and everyone in Italy is having a great time. But, little by little, day by day, they start to enjoy the country’s level plains, the windmills and tulips. They surprise themselves by eventually liking this holiday.

I do not have children, but what this book confirmed to me is the very real challenge that parents of autistic children face on a day to day basis. It’s not a grim read — indeed, there are many chinks of light in it, especially when Lisa and Michael discover (and then adopt) a program called Son-Rise, which helps Sally enormously.

It’s written in a straightforward style, free of sentiment and self-pity, and I suspect readers with autistic children, friends or relatives will learn a lot from it.

Nops also has a lovely way of describing life as an expat, especially the excitement (and apprehension) of moving to a new country, discovering new cultures and adjusting to their customs, and she skilfully interleaves this detail into her story with a lightness of touch. I liked the way the author explores this sense of “otherness”, not only as an expat but as a parent of a child with special needs.

My Life in a Pea Soup won the Finch Memoir Prize in 2012.