When Camilla Gibb's last novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, was published in August, 2010, she was eight months pregnant with her first child. This did not stop her from carrying out the requisite media obligations – photos from interviews conducted during that time show a smiling, if weary, Gibb, sometimes standing in profile as if to accentuate just how pregnant she was – and then, once her daughter was born in mid-September, heading out on a cross-Canada tour with the newborn.
To readers, nothing would have seemed amiss, except for, perhaps, the second-last line in a story that appeared in this very newspaper stating that Gibb would soon embark "on the challenging new path of a single mother." Only months before, when she was just eight weeks pregnant, she was left "clobbered by life," as she describes it: Her wife announced that she was no longer in love, and that she was leaving the marriage.
"The publisher, of course, said we can wait to put this book out," says Gibb, sitting on the patio of a coffee shop near her Toronto home one morning this month. "But I knew that part of my identity rested in being a writer … and I thought, 'Please let this part of my life not be taken away.' It's the only thing that I could recover, in a way. I still had a presence, even if I had to fake a lot of it."
Publishing the novel as planned, travelling the country to read from her work and meet her readers, restored some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal time in her life. "It gave me back a part of myself at a time when I was struggling to have any sense of self," she says.
Afterward, Gibb arrived back in Toronto and the east-end home she had hastily purchased in the wake of her separation and tried, as best she could, to move on. It was difficult. One night, tired and depressed and wondering "how I was going to survive," she e-mailed Ian Brown (a writer at this newspaper), who, the previous year, had published The Boy in the Moon, a memoir of his life with his disabled son, Walker. It was the only book she had read all year, and she reached out to him for advice. "Just write it all down," he wrote back. "Write it all down because you must." And so she did.
"It was all raw emotion," she says of the early output that followed. "It was just like writing crappy adolescent poetry all over again. It was rage. It was angst. There was no subtlety, no nuance."
The resulting memoir, This Is Happy, which will be published on Tuesday, is one of the most exquisite, agonizing and, above all, uplifting books of the year. It shows how comfort can be found in the most unlikely of places, and demonstrates that blood is simply one of several metrics to consider when defining family.
After Gibb's wife moved out – she's called Anna in the book, but it's no secret her ex is Heather Conway, vice-president of English services at the CBC; Conway has not read and wouldn't comment on the book, and Gibb declined to talk about her – Gibb began rebuilding her life by helping others rebuild theirs in turn, including Tita, a Filipina nanny with a husband she had seen only sporadically since coming to Canada and who had fled her previous, abusive employers; Gibb's brother, Micah, a recovering drug addict from whom she had often been estranged; and Miles, a young PhD student from the Maritimes whom Gibb befriended after they were set up on a blind date. At various points, they were all living under Gibb's roof – a home for wayward souls.
"Something extraordinary happened in that house," says Gibb, 47. "Everybody was broken in their own way, and yet there was this willingness to accept it in all its messiness. I think it also taught me, at a moment when I was feeling disillusioned about humanity, the extraordinary compassion that others possess and could offer me. That was rehabilitative."
We don't actually arrive at this point until midway through the book. The first half of This Is Happy is a more traditional, if not equally powerful, memoir, chronicling Gibb's difficult childhood – her father clearly suffered from some sort of undiagnosed mental illness, and her parents separated when she was very young – to her time in England, where she attended graduate school at Oxford, and Ethiopia, where she conducted field research, to her tumultuous romantic relationships with various men and women, to her struggles with depression and multiple suicide attempts, to the beginning of her writing career. (Gibb, in a story that has now become a kind of CanLit legend, was given $6,000 in cash, no strings attached, from a stranger, allowing her to quit her job and write her first novel, 1999's Mouthing The Words.)
"I think this is by far her best book," says her editor of five books and 15 years, Martha Kanya-Forstner, the editor-in-chief of Doubleday Canada. "This is the writer she was in the process of becoming, and I can't wait to see what she'll do next."
What she'll do next is an unanswered question. Although Gibb is under contract to write a novel, she has not written a word of fiction since the dissolution of her marriage six years ago and says, "I don't know when I'm going to return to it." (For her part, Kanya-Forstner says, "I'm interested in anything she writes, but I'm not worried that fiction is somehow going to be finished for her.")
What is finished is the period of her life captured in This Is Happy. Even though it was born out of what was undeniably one of the worst periods of her life, it's clear that she misses it now that (mostly) everyone has moved on: "What I'm documenting is something that has no permanence to it. Those relationships continue to evolve, and shift, and grow. That's hard. You want to keep it close. And yet you have to give people the room to grow." Without giving anything away, it's as close to a happy ending as she could have expected, considering the starting point. And she's not sure what to do now that this part of her life, this chapter, is over.
"I like to think of it as if we were incubating, all of us, in this shared space, until we were well enough," she says of the family that was created in the wake of another family collapsing. "But I'm the one who's left behind, in a sense. And it's probably time for me to find my way back to some kind of grown-up life.
"My focus, really, for five years, has been my daughter. And now she's starting school, and now she has more time with my ex-wife, and so there's more space opening up. And I've got to figure out what I do with that. I'm not sure yet."