How Happy to Be captures the life of a disillusioned entertainment journalist as she heads into a downward spiral of ritual substance abuse and empty punditry. Along this path of self-destruction, her past on a West Coast commune, both comic and poignant, keeps intruding. It isn’t until her indiscretions catch up with her that she realizes she must face that past if she is to have any chance of finding where her happiness lies.
Onstad’s ability to blend satire with a moving story of coming to terms with life’s deepest wounds makes
How Happy to Be a wholly satisfying and striking novel.
After she died, everything tasted worse. unlike my father, my mother had no contempt for the occasional dinner in a tinfoil tray, clean borders between tastes. I would imitate her walk down the frozen food aisle, breath frosting the air, hips sliding, shoulders back. A walk I only later recognized as sexy when I saw it worn by movie stars playing cocktail waitresses.
When she was gone, my father kept his eyes on the road
and drove his truck straight past the glass spaceship super-
market. He parked outside the health food store where walls and food were brown and moist. Pushing through the door was like stepping inside a redwood tree, all flesh and fibre. My dad wandered off by himself to finger the herbal teas and sugar cane, distracted and drifting, as if these foods were the source of all his sadness. He would look up, eyes running, unable to choose. So it was left to me, eight years old, to fill worn plastic containers with peanut butter and honey that lived in white tubs. But our old containers once held feta and butter and applesauce, and the system bred disappointment. Later, looking for the bumpy sweetness of jam, you ended up with yogurt, mean and tart. Longing for yogurt, you gagged on ropy tahini.
After my mother died, bread got crunchier and the house got messier and then we left Squamish, British Columbia, to see the country, driving east to Newfoundland until the edge and the water and then we turned around and went back west. We finally stopped at the Gambier Island compound, almost to the highway’s end, a boat ride from Vancouver, where there wasn’t a house at all but a monastery that resembled a roadside motel. A handful of soldiers had come back from the Second World War with Tibetan texts in hand, claiming a corner of the island. Unbothered by the farmers who lived there, they spent their mornings in walking meditation, barefoot up and down a beach so rocky their soles bled.
Two decades later, the hippies marched in, crossing water to escape the city. The soldier-monks packed boxes of burgundy robes and headed north, out of earshot of the rumble. To them, the Sixties must have sounded like a couple arguing down the street; the window’s open and the noise gets closer and louder and closer and even though they swear it’s just a friendly conversation, it sounds like yelling to you.
The new arrivals made a compound out of the empty buildings and called it a commune. Our dinnertime, once set for three, became a long Formica table occupied by other people’s children. We slept in monks’ barracks, kids above and kids below in bunk beds and hammocks, swinging in space.
My father faded out gradually, escaping to the woods for days at a time, though this was nothing new. He half-built a yurt, then gave up on pastimes and slept a lot. I was schooled in the gutted prayer hall and sulked in the classrooms, which weren’t classrooms at all but circles of stained throw pillows on cement floors. Other people’s mothers passing out fingerpaints and encouragement.
Katrina Onstad is a film and culture writer for CBC Arts Online and has had her work published in the Guardian, salon.com, and the New York Times. She is also a columnist for Chatelaine and was formerly chief film critic at the National Post.
Katrina Onstad lives in Toronto.close this panel
“Katrina Onstad finds that magic place between fact and fiction and charms the reader with her discovery. A wonderful book.”
— Douglas Coupland
“Pop culture geeks will go nuts for Onstad’s brutal dissection of the life of a media whore. . . . A triumph.”
— NOW magazine
“A deft meditation on nostalgia, grieving, and familial relations. . . . Fresh, compelling and flawless.”
— Toronto Star
“[An] ambitious and impressive first novel . . . intelligent and arresting. An auspicious literary debut.”
— National Post
“An acerbic, hilarious and culturally astute page-turner of a debut.”