Review: This Is Happy by Camilla Gibb

Tuesday 11 August 2015

I read the first pages of This Is Happy, Camilla Gibb’s first memoir, on the edge of Guelph Lake with a folk festival buzzing behind me. It was the final weekend of July, and I’d snuck away from the chaos: The sweaty bodies fighting for shade, the dancing women in flowing skirts, the line-up for overpriced beer. I found an hour of solitude as the sun began to set and hipster parents called their little ones back toward shore.

This is happy, I thought to myself.

“We come to know ourselves only through stories,” writes Gibb on one of these early pages. “We listen to the stories of others, we inherit the stories of those who came before, and we make sense of our own experiences by constructing a narrative that holds them, and holds us, together.” This Is Happy isn’t Camilla Gibb’s story. It’s her many stories, and don’t let the title fool you. Together they build a far from happy tale.

Divided in four parts — incubate, hatch, roost, and flightThis Is Happy begins where many memoirs do, at the beginning. Gibb’s rocky childhood, marred by her parents’ divorce and her father’s cruel outbursts, sets the scene. In these early days, we see a character struggling to belong, a theme that follows Gibb into an adulthood plagued by restlessness, illness, and profound heartbreak.

Amidst the often excruciating unhappiness found between the covers of This Is Happy, there is a light — a light so pure and fragile that Gibb calls it her egg. Her egg, a daughter, is born just months after Anna, with whom Gibb shared a “thorough, pure, unassailable” love, leaves suddenly, a loss that threatens to destroy Gibb at a time when someone so “pure and innocent and uncontaminated” is waiting to be born.

While the egg brings Gibb a light, it doesn’t cure the sadness that lives inside her, but it does give her a reason to survive. Around the egg, Gibb builds the family she never had with the help of Tita, the nanny, Micah, her drug-addicted brother, and her friend Miles, a “lonely gay.” The egg is at the heart of this chosen family that exists to protect her in the months that follow her birth.
“How do you protect a child from heartbreak? All I know is that the egg wants to be held all the time, and perhaps if I hold her all the time she will know that she is loved in such a fundamental and profound way that when her heart is broken as an adult, she will not fall apart, will know she is still loved and lovable.”
This Is Happy is a stunning memoir shaped by overwhelming highs and excruciating lows. It explores the commonalities all our life stories share: fantasies, failures, losses, and loves. It’s a memoir about finding light in a world that, for some, seems nothing but dark. As a reader, I couldn’t help but feel protective of Gibb, precarious and fragile, as she bears her grief, especially after her relationship ends.
“Grief is the overwhelming result of so many compounded losses that it is impossible to process as a whole. So you don’t. You spend a thousand hours in therapy talking about the thousand things that hurt, one by one, in excruciating detail. That mass of grief holds the loss of the person you loved, the idea of them, the person you were with them, the life you shared, the friends and community and extended family you shared, the idea of who you were together — it challenges the very idea of your life and yourself.
This quotation-heavy review should act as evidence that I loved this book. I loved it in a way I haven’t loved a memoir since I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, my enduring answer to the question: “What’s your favourite book?” I found myself jotting passages from This Is Happy and sharing them with others. This is one of those books you want to tell the world about.

So often, memoirs are steeped in nostalgia, but This Is Happy looks instead toward a brighter future. It may in many ways be a memoir about new parenthood, but it’s about so much more. Ultimately, it’s about the need we all have within us to find a place to belong.

1 comment:

  1. Another fabulous book from Camilla Gibb! Her writing is beautiful. You can feel both her pain & her joy. You will be routing for her happiness.

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