The Blurb (from Goodreads):
When her elderly mother is hospitalised after an accident, Vicki is summoned to her parents’ isolated and run-down ranch home in Alberta, Canada, to care for her father. She has been estranged from her parents for many years (the reasons for which become quickly clear) and is horrified by what she discovers on her arrival.
For years her mother has suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness but carefully hidden her delusions and unpredictable behaviour behind a carefully guarded mask, and has successfully isolated herself and her husband from all their friends. But once in hospital her mask begins to crack and her actions leave everyone baffled and confused … and eventually scared for their lives.
Meanwhile Vicki’s father, who has been systematically starved and harruanged for years, and kept virtually a prisoner in his own home, begins to realise what has happened to him and embarks upon plans of his own to combat his wife.
The ensuing power play between the two takes a dramatic turn and leaves Vicki stuck in the middle of a bizarre and ludicrously strange family dilemma. All this makes for an intensely gripping, yet black-humoured family drama which will leave you on the edge of your seat.
This dark confronting memoir won the 2019 Stella Prize, for its terse poetic prose and its unflinching look at dysfunctional family dynamics. Its subject matter makes it a difficult read, and I suspect it one that is likely to divide people.
Vicki grew up in Canada but now lives in Australia. Her parents still live in the family home in cold, remote Alberta. Her mother has fallen and broken her hip. Vicki and her sister travel back to Canada to help, only to find her father isolated and half-starved, and their family house filled with rubbish. It is the first time Vicki has returned home in years. She is estranged from her parents, and both hates and fears her mother. There is a sense that things have happened in the past that Vicki cannot, or will not, talk about. She skirts the topic, hinting at but never describing, acts of malice and deliberate cruelty, that leave the reader curious and unsatisfied (or, at least, left me that way.) I felt so much of the back story was left untold, and Vicki’s decision to leave her sister to deal with the majority of her parents’ care seemed unkind. If we had known more about what her mother had done to cause such hate, this decision might have seemed more like a triumph than a betrayal.
Most of the people in Vicki’s memoir are only described in terms to their relation to her i.e. my mother, my father, my sister, my husband. This too drains away any sense of the personal or intimate.
The book’s greatest strength is the writing, which is lyrical and intense:
“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.”
And I loved this description of the difference between Vicki and her sister (though to me it seemed as if Vicki was carrying plenty of rage too):
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.