This dark memoir starts at the end. Vicki’s mother and father live in isolation, secluded away from civilisation in a large house in Alberta. The book opens with Vicki and her younger sister travelling to a hospital to visit their mother who has suffered from a shattered hip. This is the first time they have seen their mother in years. Vicki and her sister are estranged, disinherited from their parents for reasons they don’t know. The sisters are stunned and horrified to find the emaciated, starved, condition that there father is in. It seems to the sisters that there mother has shut herself and her husband away from the world with the intent to slowly starve and kill their father.
The sisters start to concoct a plan that will keep their mother incarcerated indefinitely and save their father. This memoir is the classic example of the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. To say that this family is dysfunctional does not even come close to the mark. In fact, the arrow didn’t just miss the mark, it landed so far from the mark it’s yet to be found. The mother is a malevolent, malicious harridan who loves to make up stories, bend the truth completely out of shape, and if she is not trying to kill their father than, let’s say she’s not treating him too well.
Vicki writes in a beautiful, descriptive, metaphorical style which is such a joy to read. “When winter comes, summer is the memory that keeps people going, the remembrance of the long slanting dusk, peonies massed along the path, blossoms as big as balloons, crimson satin petals deepening to the black of dried blood in the waning light.”
Another example, “They come to, and a whole married life of disappointment and bitterness slips out, like an organ escaping an incision, like a balloon filled with acid. It bursts on impact, burning holes in their spouses’ clothing and leaving little round scars on their flesh that never heal completely.”
One thing that is slightly off putting is that Vicki never uses any names, everybody is referred to as sister, sister’s partner, etc. I suppose this was done to protect her family, but it does leave an impact, sometimes jarring the flow of the narrative.
Vicki also writes with a dark humour that remains a constant throughout the book. I think the highlight of the book for me is Vicki’s writing. The narrative is interesting and captivating but seems to lose steam as the book progresses. I also believe that we should have seen more of the mother, who truly is a monster, but I suppose the sister’s estrangement would have made this difficult.
It is still a great read, especially if you enjoy great writing, just for the sake of great writing, and a wonderful debut. It makes you think, what are the commitments you owe to your parents? Especially when one of them at least has treated you with such malice, disdain and eventual estrangement. I truly hope that Vicki goes on to write more as I do love her style. 4 Stars.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie is a former academic and translator. She has always believed in the power of the written word, the necessity of getting your tenses right and not using ‘I’ after a preposition. She lives in Gordon, Sydney, where she is working on a collection of love poetry, and encouraging the beginnings of a novel about betrayal of trust and vineyards. A believer in education and communication, she has taught ethics in a public primary school.
There is an interview on the Stella website with Vicki at this link - https://thestellaprize.com.au/2019/03/stella-interview-vicki-laveau-harvie-erratics/