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Pickle Me This

April 7, 2021

The Relatives, by Camilla Gibb

I loved Camilla Gibb’s new novel, The Relatives, a slim book that reads up fast, but is also not remotely slight. It’s a single volume comprising stories of three different people who don’t know each other—Lila, an alcoholic social worker yearning for a child; Tess, sharing custody of a child after her breakup and disturbed by her ex’s plans regarding their frozen embryos; and then Adam, the American man who’s being held hostage in Somalia. Each of these stories worthy of a novel of its own, and the connections between them are subtle, but important, and the whole arrangement fits together so well, kind of seamlessly, which is a remarkable achievement.

And the seamlessness is the result of the plot and the pacing here, which never stops, and makes this easily a novel you could read in a day. Everything has gone wrong for Lila, who tells her story in first person. She has put her job on the line, overstepping bounds as she brings a young girl into her care who’d been found wandering in Toronto’s High Park and does not speak a word. Lila herself is adopted, never knew the woman who gave her to her, and her own mother has just died, reawakening old wounds but also suggesting new possibilities, and it’s clear that none of this is going to end well, as she tries to fill the hole in her world with the girl.

Adam, in third person, is just as cut off from meaningful ties, even before he’s taken hostage. He’s working for the State Department in Somalia at a refugee camp, undercover, as he investigates rumours of infiltration by militant recruiters…but maybe they’re on to him, and now he’s stuck in a hole, his body brutalized, and the worst of the torture is still before him.

Things are a little less dire for Tess (also first person), an academic who studies isolated islands and other isolated communities, though her personal life is in shambles, something of an island herself. Her ex’s one last chance at motherhood would be by implanting one of Tess’s embryos, but this is a lot of ask of anyone, and especially fraught for someone as prickly as Tess—is it even possible to navigate this situation with any grace?

These stories snowball, compelled by a sense of inevitability, though the specifics still aren’t clear, and this is the seamlessness I’d talking about, how one thing leads to another, and how our lives rub up against those of others, even against our will, and what it is to be related, to have a family, how we write our own stories onto those that belong to other people. Rich and absorbing,The Relatives is about the impossibility of islands, because connection is what humans do, for better or for worse, by accident and on purpose.

One thought on “The Relatives, by Camilla Gibb”

  1. Camilla Gibb says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful and intelligent review. Camilla

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