All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

on May 18, 2020

The Erratics
Vicki Laveau-Harvie
4th Estate (Harper Collins AUS)
2019, 284p
Read from my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

We’ve been disowned and disinherited: there’s not changing it, I say. When something bad happens to them, we’ll know soon enough and we’ll deal with it together. I don’t realise it at the time, but when I say that, I imply I care. I imply there may be something to be salvaged. I misspeak. But I’m flying out anyway. Blood calls to blood; what can I tell you.

This is a memoir about a dysfunctional family, about a mother and her daughters. But make no mistake. This is like no mother-daughter relationship you know.

When Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s elderly mother is hospitalised unexpectedly, Vicki and her sister travel to their parents’ isolated ranch home in Alberta, Canada, to help their father. Estranged from their parents for many years, Vicki and her sister are horrified by what they discover on their arrival. For years, Vicki’s mother has camouflaged her manic delusions and savage unpredictability, and over the decades she has managed to shut herself and her husband away from the outside world, systematically starving him and making him a virtual prisoner in his own home. Vicki and her sister have a lot to do, in very little time, to save their father. And at every step they have to contend with their mother, whose favourite phrase during their childhood was: ‘I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.’

Regular readers of my blog know that prize winners and I don’t always have the most harmonious of relationships. However I needed to read the winner of either the Stella Prize or the Women’s Prize for my Reading Women Challenge and so I decided to try a book I’d been curious about – The Erratics which won the 2019 Stella Prize. It’s a memoir, written by a Canadian-Australian woman detailing the mental illness of her mother and how she and her sister discovered the years of abuse and neglect she had inflicted on their father when they go to visit them after their mother breaks her hip.

It’s not a long book but it’s not exactly what I’d term easy to read. It jumps around quite a lot in time and place and the author does that thing where they speak directly to the reader in a “we didn’t know that, but it was about to come” type of way, foreshadowing things or tying in things learned at a later date if they’re relevant to an earlier event. It also has no speech indication, which for some reason, actually really irritates me. It sometimes makes it difficult to tell what is spoken dialogue vs what is internal musing and occasionally these two things occur in the same paragraph.

The author grew up in rural Alberta, Canada – her and her sister were the only two children of her parents, and it seems that their mother was…difficult. Abusive, unpredictable, testing Vicki and her sister. It seems that Vicki hasn’t seen them for most of her adulthood. It’s mentioned that Vicki and her sister were disowned and disinherited years ago, the wills changed and their mother making it more than clear that they’d regret it if they came to visit. She has little interest in speaking with them although it does seem that both of them do make an effort to try and keep in touch in a loose way – the author mentions phone calls and sending photos. Their father it seems, is completely dominated by his wife, going along with all her wishes and whims, including turning his back on members of his own family and disowning his two children.

When their mother falls and breaks her hip, Vicki (who lives in Australia) and her sister go to the isolated farmhouse to check on their father and are shocked by his gaunt appearance. They decide then and there that their mother should not return to the house, for fear that she may kill him. They work hard (but carefully) to have her assessed and to help their father adjust without this dominating presence in his life any longer. As their parents age, they try and make sure they receive the appropriate care but without circumventing a lot of their wishes.

For me, it’s the gaps in this novel that stand out more than what is provided. Some of the information is vague – there are a few childhood memories but a lot of what would have helped the reader understand more about the author’s upbringing is left out. The mother rewrites history over and over again to everyone she meets – telling one person she has no children, telling another her children died, telling someone else something different. At one time the mother accepts two lecturing positions in cities thousands of kilometres away from each other and then just pretends to die to one of the universities because she can’t be in two places at once. But there’s nothing of her background, her working life, how she managed to accept and hold down jobs when it seemed all she did was send cheques away to try and win things and spend her husband’s money. They are often mentioned to be incredibly wealthy and the constant drain on the accounts by the mother seems testimony to this: the house is filled with things like mink or fur coats, dresses, etc. But there’s little about how there came to be such money or why the husband was so unaware of her constantly writing cheques until closer to the end. There’s a bit about him working in oil fields but a lot of it was (I assume deliberately) omitted which made it hard to really get a clear picture of their lives. Likewise, the husband/father’s disowning of his own children simply because his wife seemed to want to? It was interesting to read of prolonged and insidious abuse by a woman on her husband, rather than by a man on his wife but because this wasn’t the husband’s story, I never felt like I understood him. But I also didn’t really understand the author either.

I admire her and her sister, for advocating so passionately for the parents who had treated them so wrong, no matter what. They want their mother to receive good care, even as they’re determined that she never return to the marital home (they seem to believe she’s slowly starving the father to death, but once again, there wasn’t a lot of actual information about it) and that if she returns home she’ll surely kill him. With her presence removed, their father seems more receptive to a relationship with them.

It’s hard, I think, when you must take on the role of taking care of your parents. It’s like a role reversal almost and it’s probably doubly harder when there’s been such discord and dysfunction in the family. But I felt like a lot of this skimmed relevant information and made it difficult to really get a good overall picture of the life the author had growing up and the ostracisation and disowning by her mother. Her mother, for someone that seemed to loom so large over them, was a diminished figure in this book, making it difficult to grasp a lot of the nuances in the family relationships. It’s the sort of book where you know that things happened…..but you don’t know what they are.


Book #89 of 2020

The Erratics was the winner of the 2019 Stella Prize, Australia’s literary prize solely for women. So this ticks off prompt #5 in my participation of the Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. It’s the 10th book I’ve completed for the challenge and the first one towards it in well over a month!

The Erratics is the 28th book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020.


One response to “Review: The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

  1. I’m pretty sure I would hate this book. Good review! An honest look at it.

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