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August 16, 2015

This is Happy, by Camilla Gibb

Book Cover This is HappyWhile it is certainly true, as Joan Didion wrote, that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it is possible that by now the phrase itself has become so hackneyed as to be a cliche, as have become gushing publisher’s copy comparing heartbreaking memoirs to Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking. But while the good people at Doubleday Canada have resisted to the temptation to slap Camilla Gibb’s memoir, This Is Happy, with the Magical Thinking comparison, I think this the rare case in which the comparison really does apply—Gibb’s memoir is a no-holds-barred dispatch about devastating heartbreak from the frontiers of stark grief, a gut-wrenching story told from the perspective of a most cool and discerning “I”. It’s the “telling ourselves stories in order to live” in practice, Gibb, like Didion, pasting the pieces of her shattered life together, the art that emerges from the exercise.

For anyone familiar with Gibb’s fiction, much the memoir will be familiar too, so much of the former rich with autobiographical details, her first two novels in particular. It is clear that Gibb has been telling herself stories in order to live since her success with her first book in 1999, Mouthing the Words, which was also the story of a young girl from a broken home with a troubled father and plenty of trauma, mental illness, and the disillusionment of the Oxford experience. In This is Happy, Gibb goes back to her own beginnings to paint a picture of her early struggles, trying to pinpoint the moment where it all went wrong.

The happy ending was supposed to be Gibb’s marriage, which lasted ten years, to a woman who is called “Anna” in the book. A period of calm, of happiness. She does not slip into depression, she writes, she finds continued literary success. And then in her late thirties, she is surprised by a yearning to have a baby. After a painful miscarriage (though I don’t know there is any other kind), Gibb finds herself pregnant again, still tentatively so—just eight weeks along. When Anna reveals that their relationship is over, that she has fallen out of love with her. Sending Gibb into torrents of grief, which is extra-troubling because of the new life she carries inside her: this was supposed to be a beginning. Instead it’s more of the same, and Gibb fears her child growing up with the same hardships, emotional deprivations, and sense of displacement that plagued her throughout her own childhood. The damage is being done already, she feels, knowing how a fetus is meant to be affected by a mother’s stress. And she is powerless to stop it.

Except that she isn’t, which is the miracle of narrative. That it moves forward, even if one is only crawling in agony. The final third of the book is the story of Gibb’s pregnancy and experience of new motherhood, and it’s not clear for a long time that this will be a story of triumph. For most of this period, Gibb is wracked with despair, receiving special care after the baby arrives—she realizes later—not because her midwife has concerns about lactation, but because she is crying all the time. Gibb resisting a diagnosis of depression in a way I find interesting, because felt similarly when I first became a mother: that this is not depression, it just that life is terrible. Except that for Gibb, returning to antidepressants brings with it some relief. As does the support system that she has built around her as she’s put her life back together again.

In the new home that she has made for herself and her daughter, Gibb is surrounded by her long-estranged bother, an addict struggling to overcome his demons; her nanny, Tita, an immigrant from the Philippines who is waiting to be able to bring her husband to Canada to be with her; as well as friends, but not the ones she might have expected. Her brother builds her a back deck and does home renovations, she and Tita embark upon the complicated dance of an employer and employee who become much more than that. When her daughter is just a few weeks old, Gibb takes her across the country on tour for her novel, The Beauty of Humanity movement, revealing little of her pain in media interviews, though to be fair, most new mothers only ever really understand the mess they were in in retrospect anyway.

It is not a convenient trajectory: this unconventional family arrangement is not the ending either, but a moment in time. Gibb’s brother eventually leaves for Vancouver, his period of sobriety ending; Tita’s husband arrives, and they’re going to need space to become a family of their own. Gibb’s daughter gets older, a little person in her own right. Every resolution brings with it another kind of challenge, but eventually—with the help of her psychoanalyst, her unique support network, and a lot of what she’s learned about herself in the stories she’s told herself in order to live and then interrogated in order to see deeper—she finds some kind of footing:

“This is the circle that could never quite be complete… It is a story with a different ending. A story without an ending at all./ And this, I know, is happy.”

The amazing but necessary understatement of the final statement. Happiness being only an ordinary thing. And it is, and yet one must undergo a certain amount of experience before understanding that there is nothing ordinary about it—Joan Didion wrote about that in Blue Nights.

While Gibb’s own story is harrowing and awful, it emerges not as the most remarkable element of the memoir, which is instead her narrative voice, the “I” that is Didionesque. Not in the rhythms and cadence, for Gibb’s prose is excellent and entirely her own, but in the distance, the coolness, and restraint. The reader is not to imagine herself in Gibb’s shoes on that fateful day when everything changed, when she’d just purchased a freezer full of expensive fish, anticipating dinner parties and occasions unrolling into the future like a ribbon. She gives a sense of what it felt like, but that sense is not the point: the point is what does it mean? What does one make out of this kind of devastation?

And in Gibb’s case, with This is Happy, the answer is a beautiful, powerful book.

2 thoughts on “This is Happy, by Camilla Gibb”

  1. Alexis Kienlen says:

    I cannot wait to read this one.

  2. Alyssa says:

    I also can’t wait to read this book. I love Gibb’s earlier work.

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