With her second novel, The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, award-winning and celebrated author Camilla Gibb probes the bruises of family with humanity, hilarity, and a keen eye for the grotesque to deliver one of the most anticipated books of the year.
A startling and ambitious novel, as funny as it is poignant, The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life tells the story of Blue and Emma Taylor, who, despite an almost telepathic connection, respond to the sudden disappearance of their explosive father in remarkably different ways. Emma sets off in pursuit of a new family, and discovers a sense of belonging in the most unexpected places. Burly, tattoo-stamped Blue, haunted by the brutal, disparaging voice of their father, embarks on a cross-country search for the elusive parent. Emma and Blue share a most intimate connection, one forged in the secret worlds and wordless communications of childhood. As they grow, they discover the limits of the language they share.
Camilla Gibb’s debut novel, Mouthing the Words, won the 2000 City of Toronto Book Award, and has been published in twelve countries. Camilla is one of two Canadian authors named to the Orange Futures List, compiled by the Orange Prize jury to celebrate twenty-one promising writers to watch in the new century.close this panel
“I will make gashes on my entire body and tattoo it.
I want to be as hideous as a Mongol.
You will see, I will howl in the streets.”
-- Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
The Extinction of the Question Mark
A photograph. A single photograph. White borders blackened with the grease of family fingers groping at the only remaining evidence of themselves: a picture of a man kneeling on all fours in the dirt. He is drunk, he is thin, he is tired. He is Oliver Taylor, a man gazing at a camera like a bewildered animal caught in headlights, looking feral and fetal and altogether strange. It’s the middle of winter, but he seems to have adapted to the bitter cold. A white shirt hangs off his otherwise naked frame like a vestigial remnant of some earlier evolutionary stage; a time when business meant business and men wore suits.
They know he came from elsewhere -- emerged, devolved, transmuted from some earlier incarnation of himself -- because they remember when he lived in a house with a wife, two children, and a cat, and ate roast beef on Sundays and rice pudding for dessert. His wife was called Elaine, the cat called Frosted Flake, and they were those children -- Emma and Llewellyn -- Em and Blue for short.
They liked their roast beef bloody and dripping, and Elaine made the rice pudding with rich, flesh-toned condensed milk because that’s what Oliver’s mother had done during the war. Which war, Elaine never told them, even though they always asked. “The war during which your granny” -- that mysterious entity who lived on the other side of the ocean -- “used condensed milk,” she’d answer obtusely.
Emma and Blue grew up feeling as muddled about the history of the world as they did about their own ancestry. Having learned the futility of asking questions at such a young age, it’s a wonder the question mark didn’t become extinct. They fabricated answers to unasked questions in the rank and damp of the basement where they played “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” They shared secrets and understanding as they crouched by the furnace with a face like a monster in the bowels of their house in Niagara Falls.
It was there that nine-year-old Blue pulled up his sleeve to show Emma the initials he’d carved into his arm with a homemade tattoo gun made from the broken needles of Elaine’s old Singer. Emma had turned away when he’d started to pull the needles downward through his skin the day before. She’d wanted to cry out but she didn’t dare because they were already in trouble. They often were. It was the middle of a Tuesday afternoon and they were hiding in a place infinitely superior to that space between a Formica-topped desk and a doll’s chair one was supposed to occupy in grades three and four.
Blue preferred wearing graffiti to scribbling it on bathroom walls. Emma preferred darkness to daylight. They both preferred being in the basement to most places above-ground, but it was there, on that day, that Emma stared at Blue’s baby-boy bicep and realized for the first time that she and her brother didn’t wear the same skin.
She’d thought they were identical. She’d thought they were both gap-toothed and lonely and saw all the same things, even though her eyes were grey and his green. She had no idea that while she was staring at the horizon like it was icing on a cake at the edge of the world, Blue was squinting in order to avoid staring directly at all that he saw.
But they had always been different. Emma was a round little pudgeball with the type of cheeks peculiar mothers fantasized about biting. She did somersaults on sticky sidewalks, pale limbs over paler skin; she was a tangled, translucent mass, a “Holy Christ, here she comes.” Her brother, on the other hand, was long and lean and getting longer every day, emerging from baby fat into boy-body with alarming speed. He had muscles as tough as straw, and was unconsciously troubled by his limitless potential for physical growth. He was cautious, doubly so, enough for both of them, his posture hunched and timid, his movements measured and deliberate against the clumsy backdrop of his sister tumbling head, belly, then knees over heels.
“It’s my first tattoo,” he declared proudly, speaking as if he’d just adopted the first strange animal in a bestiary he was planning on housing. Because theirs was a world without questions, Emma didn’t ask the obvious. She simply nodded and put her hand to his forehead to see if he had a temperature. She spent that night, and many nights that followed though, wondering if her little brother was afraid of forgetting his name. She wished she could forget hers. She was, after all, named after her mother’s childhood pet -- not a movie star or a war hero or a favourite aunt, but a bouvier -- a four-legged furry thing with a tail like a sawed-off carrot.
In secret defiance Emma had actually changed her name. She was Tabatha -- daughter of the good witch Samantha -- a pretty little blonde girl who lived in a happy suburban home where mischievous witches and warlocks turned up unannounced for tea and inadvertently distressed her poor mortal father with trickery designed to embarrass him in front of curtain-twitching neighbours.
She sensed Blue’s motivation to identify himself was different. Perhaps he was afraid of getting lost in the street. She pictured some kind stranger, a Jimmy Stewart look-alike in a suit and a white hat, approaching her brother and saying in a voice out of a black-and-white movie: “Why, you look lost, son. What’s your name, boy?” Blue would pull up his sleeve to consult his bicep then and the Jimmy Stewart look-alike would exclaim, “What the dickens?”
If it were the fear of being lost and not found that compelled him to etch a deep, dyslexic “LT” into his arm, she would have suggested a different set of initials. Ones that would lead you back to a house with a swimming pool, or a family with twelve kids, or a mother who would buy you skates and take you to hockey practice. Initials you might want to have monogrammed on a set of towels that belong in a house with a finished basement on some street with a name like Thackley Terrace.
Instead, there they were with Elaine and Oliver, all crammed into a tiny three-bedroom house in Niagara Falls, across the street from a restaurant offering french fries and chow mein available twenty-four hours, even though a big closed sign hung across the door at night because of lack of business. The house, a decrepit building that they’d bought for next to nothing, stood on the tawdry main street, sandwiched between a hardware store and a used-clothing store. In its previous incarnation, their house had been a pet food store, evidenced by the basement full of dog food that was part of the bargain. Before that, as Elaine and Oliver deduced on the basis of what lay behind the cheap drywall, it must have been a porn shop. The building was apparently insulated with mouldy copies of Penthouse.
Camilla Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life and her debut novel, Mouthing the Words, which won the 2000 City of Toronto Book Award, have been published to rave reviews around the world. She lives in Toronto.close this panel
“An astonishing novel replete with the amazing possibilities of survival, reunion and letting go.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Gibb is surely one of the most talented writers around. . . . She can do funny, she can do sad, she can do sex. I suspect that there is little that this wonderful woman cannot do.” -- The Times (London)
“Gibb has an impressive gift for tart description. . . . Her depictions are seductive: each is so sordid you can’t help but be fascinated . . . bursting with ideas and insight.” -- Vancouver Sun
“Camilla Gibb is developing a reputation for sharp, coruscating narratives of dysfunctional families. . . . [This is a] funny, twisted, heart-breaking novel.” -- The Independent (UK)
“Gibb’s literary masterpiece inspires us to reflect on our own lives.” -- Hamilton Spectator
Praise for Mouthing the Words:
“Mouthing the Words rings with an authority rarely found in first novels. By dint of Gibb’s lush, visceral prose, Mouthing the Words persuasively charts one woman’s journey back to wholeness.” -- The Washington Post
“Gibb’s debut novel is both gut-wrenching and gut-busting. Ridiculously good for a first novel.” -- NOW Magazine
“Gibb scales her story small, twists her sentences into prickly, unsentimental assaults and ends up with a portrait of terrible, comic humanity.” -- The New York Timesclose this panel