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Happiness is...

Book Review: Memoirist Camilla Gibb challenges readers and herself by asking difficult Questions
LOOK AT LIFE Camilla Gibb, author of Sweetness in the Belly. Photo by Mark Raynes-Roberts

Whistler hosts the 2015 Writers Festival from Oct. 15 to 18. Pique is running reviews of books by attending authors to celebrate. For information and tickets:

Canadian professor and award winner Camilla Gibb, author of Sweetness in the Belly, strides purposefully through her heartbreakingly honest memoir to answer the question we all at some point ask: What is happy?

A lucrative job, an elegant house, a nuclear family; this is happy? In her first work of non-fiction, Gibb challenges notions of happiness by exploring her fractured childhood and self-destructive attempts to create the family she never had.

The story begins when Gibb's family emigrates from the U.K. to Canada. Her father loses his job and is labeled an "egomaniac without empathy or regard for others" and divorces her "steely" mother. Her older brother Micah sets out on the road to addiction. In this "slippery and loose" time of her life, Gibb experiences anxiety and depression and eventually returns to the U.K. to study at Oxford.

In academia, she retreats further until she loses the will to live. She struggles to "endure" herself. In a desperate attempt to escape unhappiness, she pursues her PhD research in a walled Muslim city in Ethiopia where she embraces an uncomplicated way of life.

She commits to writing full-time and life becomes more bearable.

Back in Canada, she marries, becomes pregnant and finally feels a stability she has never had. But her wife leaves her and life falls apart. Gibb's sense of family eventually comes from an unlikely source. Forced to face single parenting and recurrent depression, Gibb hires Tita, a Filipina nanny, who calls her "mum."

Through her relationships with Tita, an arthritic cat, a lonely lesbian friend, her itinerant recovering addict brother and her child, whom she refers to as the "egg", Gibb realizes happiness is a process.

One critic laments Gibb's memoir is self-indulgent. But Gibb is brave to expose her vulnerabilities in order to connect with others. She explains, "Being able to put your experiences into narrative gives meaning to the life you have lived... I have a job to do as a storyteller; we all do. To tell stories that make us knowable to others, more importantly our children. To give them the tools to help them know themselves. And perhaps we come to know ourselves differently as a result."

We learn about each other, and connect with each other, more through our vulnerabilities than through our strengths. As Gibb poignantly writes, "you cannot love someone you do not know, and you cannot feel loved by someone who does not know you."

This is happy.

Camilla Gibb will be presenting at the Sunday Brunch panel at the Whistler Writers Festival on Sunday, Oct. 18, along with Marina Endicott, Catherine Hunter, Amanda Lindhout, Nino Ricci, Steve Toltz, and moderated by Grant Lawrence.

Susan Oakey-Baker's memoir, Finding Jim (Rocky Mountain Books 2013), was launched at the Whistler Writers Festival. She is currently working on a novel about Mount Kilimanjaro. See her website: