Memoir is a slippery genre. You never quite know if you’re reading a highly sanitized—or hugely exaggerated—account of the author’s life. But Camilla Gibb’s This is Happy feels so raw and real that you don’t question the content. An award-winning Toronto-based author of four novels, including the 2005 bestseller Sweetness in the Belly, Gibb mined her own life experiences for this new book, from early childhood to present day. And there’s no papering over the cracks or smoothing out the bad times; when Gibb’s world falls apart, she cries. A lot.
But this is not a depressing read. Rather, at its core, this is a story of hope and survival. When Gibb is pregnant with a long-hoped-for child, her partner leaves, shattering her future dreams in one fell swoop. The loss is devastating: “I was crying all the time, I was angry and afraid, I couldn’t write, and all I wanted was for Anna to come home, to say she had made a tragic mistake, to be the family we were supposed to be,” writes Gibb. It’s her lowest point, but that is certainly not where the story ends.
In fact, the child that she is carrying becomes her salvation. She has to find a way to go on, because the baby growing in her belly demands it. A big part of that way forward is to write about her experiences. “I had an obligation to live; motherhood takes away any other option. And writing is the only way I know how. A red notebook lay to one side of me every night, a swaddled baby on the other. I believed that if I could find words, I could be a human again,” she writes. And so begins the collection of raw material that will become this very memoir.
Ultimately, she creates a new family, as unexpected people in her life step up to create a loving unit. Anyone who has ever experienced the love of a “found” family will relate to this heartwarming story. In Gibb’s brave new world, biology is only a small part of the equation when it comes to familial bonds. After her daughter is born, everything changes, and this is the most inspiring part of the book. Gibb writes about the struggles of early motherhood as a single parent and the challenges of finding a way to co-parent with an absent spouse—both subjects that never get enough honest exploration. Gibb is not afraid to go there, and then some.
She also delves back into her distant past, telling the story of where she came from. Her estranged father features heavily in this narrative and becomes a touchpoint throughout the book. Again, Gibb is interrogating the notion of what you get from your biological family, and what you don’t—a topic that’s sure to resonate with many LGBT readers. Interestingly, she tells the sweet story of meeting her long-term partner without any kind of coming-out story. Previously, she has been in serious relationships with men; now, suddenly, here’s Anna and they are in love. No angst-filled “what does this mean for my sexuality?”—it just is what it is. It’s a refreshing take on the lesbian love story.
It must have been painful to make such a story so public. But it feels as if this was the book Gibb was always meant to write. “Several years ago I was asked by Penguin to compile an anthology of contemporary Canadian memoir,” she says today. “I spent four years reading very little else, and I found myself in conversation with many of these texts.
The best memoir can offer us some reflection of ourselves or resonance with our own experiences…. For me, writing my own memoir was an act of writing toward hope.”
Now that she has put it all out there, so to speak, what is it that Gibb hopes her readers will take away from the book? “Compassion for themselves and others,” she says. And it would take an extremely hard heart not to do just that.