by Vicki Laveau-Harvie
Published March, 2019
It is difficult to know where to begin with The Erratics. For the story begins many times, at different places and points. The book begins near the end of the story, although more follows, and what happened before is revealed fleetingly, in slow unravellings and chronological leaps. So let us begin here firstly with the context, why I am writing about this book and why you might have heard of it.
The Erratics is a memoir by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, a début author in her mid-seventies. The Erratics won the 2019 Stella Prize, for the best book by an Australian woman published in the preceding year. The memoir’s path to publication has itself been erratic. Laveau-Harvie wrote her first draft in 2014, then put it away in a drawer for two years. She brought it out for a Memoir Focus Week at the Varuna Writers’ Retreat in the Blue Mountains in November 2016, where she was encouraged to enter the manuscript into the Finch Memoir Prize. It won. However, when Finch closed in December 2018, The Erratics was left without a publisher. Once the book was longlisted for the Stella, it was acquired by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, who republished it with a starry purple cover in March 2019. Since the Stella announcement, The Erratics has maintained a place on the Australian non-fiction bestseller list and international rights to the book have been sold in the US and Canada.
The story is set in the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta, Canada, near where Laveau-Harvie grew up and where her parents remained in a remote ranch house. The story follows the efforts of Laveau-Harvie and her sister to re-enter their parents’ lives after eighteen years of estrangement. Their parents had cut off all communication and disinherited them. Laveau-Harvie fled to ‘far flung places’; her sister stayed closer and tried to reach out to her parents, but was repeatedly rejected.
The sisters are alerted by a stranger that their mother’s hip has ‘crumbled’. They decide to attend to her in hospital, ‘honouring a commitment made absent-mindedly years ago’ to help their parents in times of need. The narrative is an exploration of the complicated nature of family loyalties, as Laveau-Harvie attempts to reconcile with her sister and father after decades apart. At the centre of the story is Laveau-Harvie’s ‘supernaturally persuasive’ mother, whose ‘magnetic manipulation’ of language and people mesmerises doctors and nurses attending to her, who hypnotises and starves Laveau-Harvie’s father until he is dangerously close to death and is an ongoing responsibility for the narrator and her sister.
Laveau-Harvie has packed a lifetime of hurt, confusion and disorientation into this slim volume. Words have layers: seemingly innocuous questions can unearth complex trauma. A physio at their mother’s hospital asks Laveau-Harvie and her sister ‘what the matter is’.
[They] stare at her, wanting to say all that is the matter, wanting to roll out the whole carpet of what is the matter and smooth it out, drawing attention to the motifs, combing the fringed edges into some order, vacuuming the patterned surface until clarity emerges.
This could be a metaphor for the entire memoir. Laveau-Harvie expresses a wish to depict what has happened to her logically and clearly, but the story is too complicated and extraordinary to be rolled out in a linear way. The story is made more gripping and disorientating by its use of present and future perfect tenses throughout. There are no speech marks either, so conversations, people and places elide and blur. At times, she refers to traditional expectations for a narrative, only to distinguish this one from them: ‘Every story has a before and after, a pivot point … This story does not feel like that, life being messy.’ As well as deflating her readers’ expectations for closure or a logical conclusion, this device reminds readers that this is a memoir, not a plotted fiction, and that Laveau-Harvie is attempting to untangle memories from her life. As a result, the first half of the book in particular reads like a tug of war, as Laveau-Harvie zooms in on the details of a conversation with her mother or father then pulls back to supply context, with playful warnings like: ‘Just in case we’re having too much fun with this, let’s go back a notch in time’ or ‘But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re not there yet. That’s weeks from now.’ Laveau-Harvie is restraining herself as well as her reader, trying to stop herself from getting carried away with amusing anecdotes before the main characters have been fully introduced. This technique is compelling, intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. The narrative is highly tangential and digressive, and it is only on the 79th page of the story, when Laveau-Harvie announces ‘[h]ere we are then, in the back story’, that the narrative stops jumping a little and a more sequential history begins to unfold.
This is Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s version of events, ‘her truth’ as she is ‘the one doing the talking right now’. She often incorporates the perspective of other characters—most often her sister, father and mother, all unnamed—but makes it clear that this is her projection of their understanding. The narrative perspective is complicated further by the blanks in Laveau-Harvie’s memory. This is not simply a plot device:
It’s not that I have misplaced my recollections, and if I taste whatever Canada’s equivalent of Proust’s madeleine tea-cake is, maybe a chocolate-chip cookie or a Nanaimo bar, it will all flood back…
Rather she has blocked out most of her painful childhood and claims to feel ‘at home in the fog’ that covers some of her past.
The reasons for this pain are disclosed slowly. Clues build ominously. Her sister refuses to be called by her childhood name, which casts ‘her back into the black chasms of before’. Hospital staff note that her mother ‘can be difficult’ and remark ‘it must have been hard’ growing up. Her mother, ‘emerging from the terrifying hinterland of anaesthetic’, explodes at her husband with such ‘piercing cruelty’ that it makes him weep, but this is excused by her old age.
We do not know who to believe when Laveau-Harvie and her sister have to justify their existence to two hospital staff, who have been separately convinced by their mother that she has no children and that she had eighteen. Laveau-Harvie invites the reader to question her and her sister’s motives, admitting that they might not care if their mother died in hospital, that it would make their lives easier. Laveau-Harvie never explicitly states in The Erratics that her mother was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder but she has done so in external interviews. Instead, she explores the collateral damage that this condition—or this ‘monstrous personality’ as the Stella judges put it—has caused her father, her sister, herself, benevolent strangers and her mother throughout the narrator’s life.
Laveau-Harvie and the reader are never certain how her mother is going to act or react. In one hospital visit, she plays ‘the devout mother, devoted to her wildly successful offspring who have flown incalculable distances to stand by her bed of pain’. She is doting until she becomes unsettled by Laveau-Harvie’s claim that ‘Kathmandu’ provided her protection against the cold Canadian winter, unaware that this is an Australian outdoor clothing store.
She hears the word and infers some serious spiritual endurance training on my part. She turns a cold eye on me, assessing whether I have or do not have the chops to trump her surprising performance of piety with some more exotic ace of enlightenment.
Laveau-Harvie sees the absurdity in this incident, presenting it with the ‘detached, slightly numb and darkly humorous’ narrative voice identified by the Stella judges. She also sees the humour in her mother telling a university that she was dead to get out of teaching Intermediate French: ‘She signed contracts for both and only then realized that, however superior she might be, she still couldn’t teleport’.
Laveau-Harvie’s mother is also capable of unexpected, unprovoked violence. These acts arrive without warning in the middle of the book. Laveau-Harvie is visiting her parents for the first time in eighteen years and goes to tell her mother that the dish they are cooking for dinner has boiled over. Her mother ‘surges silently from a dark doorway’ and gives her a ‘sharp shove of surprising force’, sending her into the wall. In a separate incident, a local librarian drives Laveau-Harvie’s mother to the mall and suggests that once there, she might like to use a courtesy vehicle: ‘Incensed at the implication of infirmity and age and decrepitude, [she] clubs the unsuspecting woman over the head several times with her walking stick’. Her elderly mother’s stealth catches her victims off-guard; she is always one step ahead of Laveau-Harvie, anticipating her every move. The gaps in the narrative intensify the threat of violence and leave the reader braced for more.
Equally insidious is the way Laveau-Harvie’s mother tells stories to deceive and manipulate those around her. Her stories cause Laveau-Harvie and her sister to question their own identities and their recollection of their pasts. For example, her mother contrives that Laveau-Harvie was wanted by Interpol in South America. Laveau-Harvie has to be reassured by her sister that neither of them lived in Venezuela, that she has not forgotten this part of her life.
The titular erratics are Laveau-Harvie’s family. Laveau-Harvie herself is erratic, wandering to distant continents to survive and stay sane. In reading notes on the memoir, Laveau-Harvie describes her mother as ‘the very definition of unreliability, unpredictability, ominous disorder’. This book examines her ‘legacy’ of ‘chaos’. Her father is unreliable too. While he appears genial when apart from his wife, he was previously captivated by her to the point of self-relinquishing. He disowned his daughters as well. At times, Laveau-Harvie has difficulty justifying her concern for him beyond family loyalties: ‘Blood calls to blood. What can I tell you?’
Faced with the instability of the people closest to her, Laveau-Harvie finds comfort in the mountainous landscape: the predictable changing of the seasons, the beauty of the ‘opalescent’ peaks and even the inhospitable nature of the jagged rocks. Laveau-Harvie calls the Rockies ‘practically a character in the book’. The other prominent ‘erratic’, then, is the Okotoks Erratic, a huge boulder deposited by glacial flow thousands of years ago which cracked and ‘fell in on itself’, and which ‘dominates the landscape’ near her parents’ ranch house. The story is bookended by the geographical and spiritual origins of this fissured rock. It offers hope for stability after a rupture, but is also a reminder of the family’s relative insignificance against the natural history of their home region.
Laveau-Harvie’s relationship with her mother ends unexpectedly. A lifetime of unpredictability makes her doubt the credibility of even the most inevitable events. When she and her sister see her mother for what seems like the last time, she says: ‘It should end like this, but life unravels differently’. Laveau-Harvie seeks order in her story, but keeps finding loose threads. Laveau-Harvie never condemns those close to her, leaving it to readers to cast their judgement. She has ‘dealt with her demons elsewhere’ through distance and therapy. In an essay for The Guardian, Laveau-Harvie claims to have not found writing The Erratics to be cathartic, as some other memoir writers do. She concurs with American writer Dani Shapiro, who claims that writing a memoir ‘embeds your story deep inside you’, ‘by freezing a moment in time’. When Laveau-Harvie thinks she is seeing her mother for the last time, she cannot speak to her:
There is no comeback, or too much comeback – either way, there are no words. We are petrified in grief, like flies in amber.
Humour animates the narrative of The Erratics, creates detachment and sustains Laveau-Harvie’s hope. Yet the gaps in the narrative are often those that Laveau-Harvie finds too painful to describe. These gaps are frozen grief, for which there are no words.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie, ‘I needed to deal with my destructive demons before I could write about my past,’ The Guardian, 13 May 2019.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie, ‘Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s 2019 Stella Prize acceptance speech,’ The Stella Prize, 8 April 2019.
Melissa Thorne is a recipient of a 2019 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Thorne that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Madeleine Gray and Eloise Grills.