Gibb's 'Mouthing the Words': A debut novel of brilliance

On Books

April 15, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

A perpetual yearning for book-review editors is to discover amid the 50,000 new titles published annually in the United States a volume of such brilliance of craft, originality and truthfulness as to be an instantaneous classic. That was answered -- to my taste, anyway -- by "Mouthing the Words," by Camilla Gibb (Carroll & Graf, 192 pages, $25).

A story told by a girl / woman, it begins when she is 6 and ends in her late 20s, by which time she has survived a hideous childhood, repeated stays in psychiatric wards, law school in Canada, graduate study at Oxford.

It rivetingly details an inner emotional life that is more real -- to her and to at least this reader -- than her real life.

One of the author's extraordinary accomplishments is to maintain throughout the book an absolutely convincing contemporaneousness of voice. The 6-year-old speaks in language and at a level of awareness that have the true tone of her age and experiences. So it is of the 12-year-old voice, when the story takes her there. And so on through the end of the book, chronicling a person who is ever changing, ever more complex, always secretive, always incompletely informed or incapable of analysis, but -- because of the book's artfulness -- brilliantly, magnificently human.

A second wonder is that Gibb does all that and more in a way that is often exuberantly -- if blackly -- funny.

Camilla Gibb studied at Oxford and lives in Toronto. How much of this story is autobiographical is, I believe, utterly irrelevant, though obviously some things are. This is her first book. It initially was published in 1999 by a small Canadian house and received little attention. Kent Carroll of Carroll & Graf bought the U.S. rights, and now it has been sold to publishers in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and elsewhere.

Thelma is born in London in 1968, to a family with characteristic British eccentricities taken to stratospheric levels. Her father is Douglas. She has a younger brother, Willy. Her maternal grandmother is called "Puff" because of her hair. To call the family dysfunctional would be cruelly to slight the more elegant term "mad."

Rich ambiguities

They move to a village outside London, and Douglas commutes to an ad-agency job he detests. He sexually abuses Thelma and apparently is involved with other women, including his secretary. Thelma's mother appears to have a lover. All this is seen and told through the eyes of a 6-year-old, so there are ambiguities -- but with no loss of the power of the tale.

Fantasies play a major role in Thelma's life. She concocts distinct, imagined companions who provide insulation and protection from the unbearable. At 6, she describes them: "Ginniger was, well, just like me. Somewhere in the middle. Sometimes a mother to Teddy and Blondie and Janawee, sometimes Heroin's baby girl, sometimes Daddy's naughty secretary, sometimes his pet, sometimes Mummy's little inconvenience, sometimes Daddy's little helper, sometimes Willy's sister, Auntie Esme's petal, or Grannie Puff's big girl now, but always rather moody and timid and quiet. She said very little and she rarely, if ever, laughed."

They immigrate to Canada, the father preceding by a year. There, life is more insane than in England.

The book is a brave, terrified expedition through a childhood and adolescence, an Odyssey of a fragile soul. Each step is full of terror, and thus unwelcome: At age 14, Thelma relates: "I daydream a lot about being an icicle: Hanging from the roof and watching the world, dripping away into watery nothingness in the spring. I want to come and go like winter, be unspeaking, cold and untouchable, crystal clear. No blood, no eggs, no stomach, no breasts, no claws, no sighing, no dogs panting over top of me."

At 18, she is 5 foot 9 and weighs 105 pounds, and has to spend weeks in the hospital with an IV in her arm, a serious anorexic. The hospital is a psychiatric ward and she is there with other women who don't eat -- especially Molly, who becomes her friend, and who throws up all the time.

More pain

She goes to law school and finishes at the top of her class -- capable of obsessive concentration. But soon after she scratches her face and eyes so severely that she is institutionalized again. She gets out, is given a scholarship to do advanced legal studies at Oxford, and goes. She attempts suicide.

Returning to Canada, she finds a psychiatrist who connects, and she feels as if she's fallen in love for the first time in her life. The therapy works, and somehow Thelma emerges, going to work in a law firm, taking an apartment.

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