In her new memoir, Camilla Gibb writes, “Being able to put your experiences into a narrative gives meaning to the life you have lived.” The awareness that allows for this meaning can only come from looking back and examining the formative moments that shaped one’s understanding of the world. Gibb has written four novels to date, including Sweetness in the Belly, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2005. But this is her first work of non-fiction.
This Is Happy begins, ironically, with a declaration of unhappiness, followed by fragmented, yet vivid recollections of the author’s childhood. The abrupt loneliness of immigration from the U.K. to Canada, her father’s abuse, his divorce from her mother and subsequent absence all contribute to her early sadness. Gibb writes eloquently about this time in her life, when “[e]verything felt slippery and loose.” The author is brutally honest about her struggles with mental illness, something she feared she had inherited from her father, who was “diagnosed” shortly after coming to Canada as an “egomaniac without empathy or regard for others.”
Gibb returned to England in her early twenties for graduate studies at Oxford, with the hope of reclaiming the roots she had left behind. Instead, she fades into the coldness of academia, incrementally losing her will to live, yet somehow remaining grounded by her studies. Her Ph.D. research takes her to the walled Muslim city of Harar in Ethiopia, which would later become the setting for Sweetness in the Belly. There she discovers an uncomplicated happiness by fully immersing herself within her new community. When she returns to England, she experiences a “reverse culture shock” that lands her in a psychiatric hospital.
It is in writing that Gibb discovers her true passion: “writing made it tolerable to be human in a way nothing else ever had.” After a stranger helps her achieve the courage to pursue this desire, she writes the first draft of her debut novel in just eight weeks – a remarkable feat that cements her resolve to abandon academia. But finding this renewed purpose doesn’t make living any easier. A novelist cannot exist entirely in the vacuum of stories. Gibb knows this and longs to lay down solid roots; her own fractured childhood makes her need to build a family all the more pressing.
Fiction is said to be an escape from reality. However entrenched in the real world a story may be, novels are written from a place of imagination, where the writer has uninhibited control over the universe he or she has created. Writing about one’s own life, by contrast, means relying on memory, which Gibb calls “that most fallible of sources.” For Gibb, as a result, impressions take precedence over the truth in crafting memoir, and what is remembered is more feeling than fact.
There is nothing more universal than the desire to be happy, and by the end of the book, Gibb finds that happiness is not a destination but a journey. This Is Happy is a deeply moving, engrossing, and relatable read.