The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

One of the things I’ve learnt in counselling is to pay attention to my judgements, to examine very closely what’s behind my assessment of another person. In particular, what does a ‘judgement’ say about me (as opposed to my client)? To be clear, 95% of my time counselling is free of judgement – I listen, I try to understand and that’s it. But 5% of the time, someone will say something that triggers an immediate personal reaction, and it’s in that 5% where counsellors do their own work. Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir, The Erratics, was a whole book of 5% for me.

Laveau-Harvie is Canadian-born and raised but has lived much of her life in Australia (hence this book being longlisted for the Stella Prize). The Erratics captures a short time in her life when, along with her Canadian-based sister, they moved their elderly mother into permanent care, and made arrangements for their father to stay in the relatively remote prairie home he loved. This sounds straight-forward, however, the blurb hints at something more dramatic – the mother is mentally unstable, hostile and delusional, and has systematically starved her father and kept him a hostage in his own home.

One of the few coherent messages my mother repeated to me and to 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.

There are gaps in this story – a traumatic childhood is alluded to but not detailed; her mother’s diagnosis, or suspected diagnosis (my feeling is Borderline Personality Disorder); what events triggered the author and her sister to be estranged from their parents; and what made Laveau-Harvie leave Canada. Had these gaps been filled, I may have had more emotional context around what unfolds and my ‘5%’ may not have been exercised. But it was. Here’s why:

01. Laveau-Harvie clearly and repeatedly ‘opts-out’ of helping her sister and others bear the burden of caring for her father. And her sister repeatedly steps up. Of her sister she says –

I feel she has strained for years, jumping again and again like a terrier, trying to see over the wall of their rejection. We’ve been disowned and disinherited. There’s no changing it, I say.

It’s pretty easy to opt-out when you know your sibling, whose sense of obligation might be greater than yours, is there. Her disconnection from her family made me curious and  wondered why she could not separate the care she might show for her sister and father from that she does not want to show for her mother? Interestingly, she observes, ‘The one who doesn’t care has all the power.’

02. So then we come to the tricky situation of siblings making decisions about parents, complicated in this case by distance. I fully own my 5% here – my husband and I are geographically closest to both sets of parents, with our siblings all some distance away. Care of parents falls to us by default, and everyone in the family knows it.

I told her bluntly: Do not do this. Not unless you can carry it alone, because I am not here, and I can’t be here every time there is a problem. You will be alone with this…and I can see sinkholes of simmering resentment about to develop between us.

03. What does Laveau-Harvie feel? The book is written in an emotionally distant, almost clinical style. I found one of the few revealing paragraphs particularly interesting –

Scratch me and you get grief. It will well up surreptitiously and slip away down any declivity, perhaps undermining the foundations but keeping a low profile and trying not to inconvenience anybody. Scratch my sister…you’ll get rage, a geyser of it, like hitting oil after drilling dry, hot rock for months and it suddenly, shockingly, plumes up into the sky, black and viscous, coating everything as it falls to earth. Take care when you scratch.

Interesting because my instinct (judgement) says she has it around the wrong way. Sure, Laveau-Harvie may feel grief, and the opting-out may be a way of keeping a low profile but I think she is full of rage. And I return to my suspicion of unresolved childhood trauma. Laveau-Harvie hints at it –

I do know this: where there is nothing, there must have been pain. That’s why there is nothing. Be glad if you forget.

People handle trauma differently – has she successfully ‘forgotten’ hers or has she not even touched it yet?

I openly acknowledge that my reaction to this book was more about me than the book per se. Kim at Reading Matters fairly reviewed the book, not the author! Check out her review here.

3.5/5 My score doesn’t reflect how engrossed I was in this book at the time of reading but I finished with questions and a lack of resolution.

I order a lemon, lime and bitters, and after they question me carefully about what it might be, they do their best and I try to drink some of the result from the milkshake container it comes in, because they tried, that good old Canadian spirit. Over the border in the US, they would have just brought me a Sprite.

It never occurred to me that lemon, lime and bitters was an Australian thing… (it’s one of my favourites).



40 responses

  1. Pingback: The 2019 Stella Prize Longlist | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. Hi Kate, a good review. At first I found this memoir difficult to get into, but once I settled down, I couldn’t put it down. Families are all different and they all encounter difficulties, but I am glad I didn’t belong to this one.

  3. Very interesting to read this straight after reading Kim’s review, and will link yours as well as hers to my post about the Stella. (It’s also listed in the NSW Premier’s).
    Everyone I know of a similar age to me is tackling the care of aged parents one way or another – and you are spot on when you comment that “it’s pretty easy to opt-out when you know your sibling, whose sense of obligation might be greater than yours, is there.” OTOH as we see in this case, even when the family relationships are toxic, it’s difficult to opt out of the emotional blackmail when the crisis occurs.

    • Yes, one of those books that I feel the need to have an actual, real-life conversation/ debate about (I’m planning on suggesting it to my book group – were all of similar age and managing aging parents).

      I think what this book highlights is that ‘support’ can take many forms. When one sibling /child is geographically distant, hey can still provide emotional support, which can be just as much or even more, ‘work’. But to opt-out of the day-to-day work as well as the emotional support, as I feel the author did, is another thing altogether.

      Anyway, an interesting and thought-provoking book. Thanks for the links.

  4. Pingback: 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  5. Pingback: 2019 Stella Prize Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  6. I suspect this one won’t be published in the UK anyway but having emerged last year from a very long period where my partner’s sibling did very little while we took responsibility for his irascible father, I’m not sure I could read it without grinding my teeth.

    • Yes, it’s a very particular kind of family/ sibling problem. While this book doesn’t get into the murky details, there are a few scenes that pushed my buttons.

      I think it’s interesting that although a very common situation, it’s not one that comes up in novels very often.

  7. Thanks for the link. And I do agree with your assessment of Vicki… I think she probably is full of rage and doesn’t know it. Oh, and lemon, lime & bitters is VERY Australian. I laughed out loud at that bit in the book because I have a clear memory of asking for one in a (now local) pub 18 or 19 years ago and the bar tender not having a clue what I was on about. I drink it at every opportunity when I am back home. It’s one of my favourite non-alcoholic drinks!

    • The lemon, lime and bitters part of my review, (really, the least important part!), has sparked a lot of discussion amongst my friends – one, who grew up in Dubai, said they would go to the British ex-pats club and order ‘Chapman’s’, which is similar to bitters. But again, at the time, no one else knew of Chapman’s outside of Dubai!

    • I ‘enjoyed’ it, in that it’s sometimes good to have some buttons pushed… And have enjoyed the exchange of comments here and on Kim’s post but she certainly has a clipped style that won’t be for everyone.

  8. I was an early child teacher for 18 yrs – one of the things my uni degree did not prepare me for was the level of counselling that would be involved in my career choice, on a daily basis. It took me years of inservicing in the area of psychology to learn that those kids and families who ‘pushed your buttons’ were giving me an opportunity to work on my own issues.

    Curiously I had a similar reaction to you to this book just by reading the back blurb. I felt a strong resistance to the narrator’s voice and issues about trust and authenticity raced to the front of my mind. I put the book back on the display table at work.

    • There’s a quote floating around that goes something like ‘The children who need the most love, ask for it in the most unloving of ways’. As a teacher, ou would have seen that in action on a daily basis. I think it often applies to adults as well…

      As for this book, read it when you feel ready! It is interesting and challenging.

  9. I find it interesting that someone who is disconnected from their family would choose to write a book about them. Particularly given this opting out that you mention she engaged in. Was she looking for sympathy, do you think?

    • I don’t think she was looking for sympathy at all – there was no self-pity in her story. I feel like she was telling it that way to reassure herself that her actions were justified.
      I keep coming back to something Catherine Deveny said at the last Melbourne Writers Festival about memoir – “…it doesn’t have to be accurate, but it does have to be authentic.” In that sense, the author has fulfilled the brief.

      • That’s interesting…accuracy versus authenticity. Makes sense though because memories can’t necessarily be relied on. We might not remember every detail or conversation but we may remember how a situation made us feel.

  10. Pingback: ‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie – Reading Matters

  11. I think all the best books make you think about yourself as much as you do about the characters, and I often wonder what drove an author to present an issue in a particular way. As Lisa says we are all of an age now to have caring for parents on our mind. None of my brothers and me live in the same city as mum, which is becoming increasingly problematic.

    • I agree Bill and I enjoy ‘critical reading’ (in relation to myself!).

      Interestingly, I’ve been listening to some podcasts (work related) about how critical and reflective reading by teenagers can help them make better life choices – I’ll put a post together at some stage but it is another fascinating reason why we should all read more 🙂

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  13. I usually give Stella shortlisted books a go but as with a few others before my comment, reading your review triggered me enough not to want to search this one out! It sounds way too close to my sibling-resenting bone for comfort, but I can see why you ‘enjoyed’ it. If my own grief wasn’t still as raw as it is, I think I’d find it fascinating, too. I do have a question about it – is the author the elder sibling?

      • Yes, that’s exactly what I expected. My own family experience with caring for a parent in the last stages of life and what you say about the author not making a full declaration of what went on in her own childhood makes me wonder whether eldest children occupy a space where things happen to them that aren’t witnessed by younger siblings, that they feel responsible in some way for not troubling their younger siblings with their experience, and that this then affects the way they respond to a crisis of care with their parents.

      • Interesting observation as the author does allude to the fact that she was left to care for her sister, at an age where she was just a child herself.

  14. I’m not sure I’ll get to read this given my piles but I’m certainly intrigued. Generally I say that we should not review the author but in the case of memoir it is tricky and hard to separate. I fell into that trap with Jill Ker Conway’s The road from Coorain – and I’ve tried hard to not do it again. It’s hard though if you feel the author is being unreasonable. At least in Conway’s case – as I remember – she was pretty clear about the origins of her feelings so we didn’t feel there were hidden things going on.

    Authenticity is alway the most important thing, I’d say, in any writing. Accuracy is tricky in memoir. We’d like to think it’s accurate but when we think about memory and the fact that one person’s memory of an event in a family is so different from another’s then we have to realise there is no absolute accuracy for most things that happen to us. And I guess that’s where authenticity comes in – we need to believe that the author isn’t intentionally leading us astray but is telling us honestly the way they saw it.

    Finally, I am the child on hand with both my parents here. My (baby – ha!) brother lives in Hobart, but he is magnificent and is up here in a flash when things happen – as they did last week. I know absolutely that I can rely on him to help with the going gets tough, and that we are essentially on the same page regarding how to handle issues. The differences we’ve had so far are more in degree than absolute. I feel very lucky.

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  19. I read Kim’s review before finding yours – interesting to see how the reactions were different. Even setting to one side your expert knowledge and the questions this book therefore provoked, I would still be puzzled about the gap in the narrative to explain why she became estranged from the parents.. I’d expect that to be part of the story..

    • And my best reading buddy (we usually have similar opinions on books and like the same kind of books) had another take on it altogether – she felt that Vicki was extremely good at self-protection and all that she did was absolutely justified.

      On one hand you get the impression that the mother’s mental health was enough to explain the estrangement however I still wanted to understand the mechanics of that – whose decision? Was it triggered by an event or did they drift apart?

      Anyway, a terrific book for book groups because there’s LOTS to discuss.

  20. Pingback: Stella Prize 2019 – and the winner is… | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  21. Pingback: Vicki Laveau-Harvie, The erratics (#BookReview) | Whispering Gums

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