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The Erratics: 2019 Stella Prize Winner Paperback – 20 Mar 2019
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About the Author
Vicki Laveau-Harvie was born in Canada, but lived for many years in France before settling in Australia. She has three passports and treasures the unique perspective this quirk of fate affords her. In France, she worked as a translator and a business editor, despite being a specialist in 18th century French literature. In Sydney, she lectured in French Studies at Macquarie University. After retiring, she taught ethics in a primary school.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie is passionate about writing, education and communication. Her memoir, The Erratics, won the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize and was longlisted for the Stella Prize. She has won prizes for short fiction and poetry.
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When the sisters arrive in the small Alberta town where they grew up they find their mother in hospital being her usual schizoid self; charming and manipulative on one hand and violently aggressive on the other. They are shocked to see their father’s skeletal thinness: their mother has been restricting his calories. So begins a saga. As they try to get their mother assessed as incompetent so that she can’t go home and kill their father they find themselves trawling through the usual problems of dealing with bureaucracies and home care arrangements. Vicki finds herself travelling between Canada and her home in Australia. Her sister has a near death experience which at first seems to be due to anaphylactic shock but turns out to be a rare medical condition. Stress, of course, is a factor and it fell to her to hold an estate sale when their father decided to move out.
Laveau-Harvie is a former academic (French language) and is clearly extremely intelligent and perceptive. Two of the enjoyable aspects of the book are her dark humour and her general knowledge. The allusions to just about anything going include a reference to racing driver Fangio when her father (who hasn’t driven for years) floors it making a dangerous left turn across a busy main highway. Factor in that the only reason they are facing this possible death trap is that her mother has decreed that he and Vicki should have lunch in a town that necessitates taking this route. This book has its own Cinderella story. It’s Laveau-Harvie’s debut novel and her publisher closed down six months after the book came out. There weren’t many copies around but then ... it won a prestigious prize and has been republished by another company. It’s very deserving of both. PS: The Erratics are strange rock formations erupting from the Alberta prairie. They have their own native legend.
Of particular interest is the way the two sisters have responded differently to their upbreaking.
The memoir moves backwards and forwards through time as the writer seeks to explain and understand.
The writing is precise and evocative.
the humour in the memoir is the despairing, bleak kind which needs to be utilised to avoid howling with pain. It is also another book about the awful burden mental illness can place on surrounding family, over generations. I finished this book feeling utterly downcast at the sadness of the lives of all the people in the family. Perhaps the most exquisite writing was reserved for the formidable landscape which might kill with its severity but is also dreadfully beautiful.
Top international reviews
The book covers a period of a few years when two sisters deal with sequestering their aged mother away from their aged father. It is written by the older sister of two, who might be in their late fifties. We get occasional hints that the sisters harbour childhood trauma from this mother – the younger sister more so than the older.
The vacant thing in this story is context. We get very little information of the two sisters as to why they are where they are in their lives – the older one in Sydney, the younger one in Vancouver and the parents on the prairie near Calgary. Early in this tale the sisters chuckle that their mother is as ‘mad as a meat axe’. We get some evidence of her astringent control over her husband, her hypochondria and strange pursuit of wasting money in ‘get rich quick’ schemes. We do get a suggestion that the family has a lot of money to waste. But, we do not get any context; any sense of the history of a decaying mind, any sense of sympathy or empathy for the mother – or the sisters. The sisters want mother locked away. The dominant emotion in the book is dislike – even embodied hate – of a mother and some energy for the sisters to rescue the father.
Having achieved the lock up of the mother most of the book is then about how they set about and manage their father’s care. Apart from being mildly interesting in the logistics of running aged care from a distance, all this is insufficient to sustain a book. We learn little to nothing of the writer of the piece – what motivates her, what she has achieved, or not, in life, why she dislikes her mother so and likes her father. Its just missing. The older sister tells us a few things about her sister but still not enough to engage the reader’s interest or concern.
This book is not literature. There is but one lonely metaphor and that is in the title. It is not consistently well written. I wonder why it has won the vaunted Australian Stella prize for writing by women. It only leaves me to think that the rest of the books on the Stella short list must have been dreadful – and I do not think that could be the case.