Celebrated author Camilla Gibb has returned with The Relatives, her first novel in nearly a decade. She’s our guest this week on The Chat.
A rave review in the Toronto Star calls The Relatives a testament to Gibbs’ position as one of Canada’s great storytellers. “Gibb’s taut, suspenseful prose urges us ever forward, probing the deeper connections among her beautifully flawed family of characters. Can any of us escape our prisons, fulfill our best intentions? Taking us into the bright and the dark, worlds known and unknown, Gibb’s multi-layered tale solves these mysteries with the immense satisfaction that only the best storytellers can deliver.”
Camilla Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. She is the author of four internationally acclaimed novels—Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-so's Life, Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement—as well as the bestselling memoir This is Happy. Camilla has been the recipient of the Trillium Book Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, and the CBC Canadian Literary Award and has been shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She has a PhD from Oxford University and is an adjunct faculty member of the graduate creative writing programs at the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph.
Trevor Corkum: The Relatives explores the lives of three characters—social worker Lila, mother and historian Tess, and kidnapped aid worker/spy Adam—each of whom grapples with a fundamental struggle involving family. How did the novel first announce itself to you?
Camilla Gibb: I had this image of a girl who couldn’t speak—a girl walled off from others because of her inability to articulate herself and communicate her experiences. I think we are probably all this girl at some point in our lives and/or relationships. That is true to differing extents for all of the characters in this book and manifest in different ways. Where it plays out most demonstrably is in relationships to others, particular with those who are family.
TC: This is your first novel in a decade. Elsewhere, you’ve spoken about the difficulty of writing fiction during this period, a time in which you released your much lauded memoir This Is Happy. In what ways are the demands of fiction and memoir different for you as a writer?
CG: There is infinitely more freedom in fiction. While you have to remain “true” to your characters, honour their authenticity as individuals, you can explore the possibilities for their lives right to the end of them, if you wish. Having more freedom doesn’t make it easier to write, though, quite the opposite. I spend a lot of time writing my way into my characters, getting to know them first before I know their stories. If I were to create a plot outline before I knew them, make decisions for them before I knew them, it would feel forced. In some ways, fiction has to be more believable, more plausible than real life. It is not the best tool for capturing the messy and fragmented realities most of us live.
In some ways, fiction has to be more believable, more plausible than real life. It is not the best tool for capturing the messy and fragmented realities most of us live."
TC: Much of your work explores the deep difficulty of intimacy and attachment, challenges faced in The Relatives by each of your three main characters. The wounds each carry serve both as a defense against intimacy, but also the means through which growth and healing, however difficult, begin to occur. Which of the characters—Lila, Tess, or Adam—was most difficult to bring to life, and why?
CG: Tess was most difficult for me. I identified with Tess’s partner, Emily, much more readily so herein lay the challenge. I liked her least of all my characters. You don’t have to like your characters nor do they have to be likeable but you do have to understand and empathize with them. Finding empathy for her was a challenge because she made certain decisions that had huge repercussions for those around her without any real understanding of their impact or much in the way of self-awareness.
TC: The Relatives is a slim book, but so densely rich it feels like a much longer novel. Was this brevity and compression the vision from the start?
CG: My writing has just become more distilled over time. Slower and more distilled. Every word is deliberate; there is very little that is extraneous. I want to get to the gut of a thing—a feeling, an idea—in an exacting way. I want to lay things bare. I don’t make all the connections between things explicit—I trust the reader’s intellect and imagination.
TC: Finally, the novel comes out, as so many have, in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. What has the experience been like for you?
Shrug. We are all in it. In March 2020, no one could imagine we would still be here in summer 2021. Publishers made decisions to hold back books because they anticipated a return to something more like normal operations, and when that didn’t prove true they released all those stored up books, resulting in an avalanche of fiction. Literary fiction has limited reach at the best of times and this is the worst of times. The writers I feel for are those who released their debuts into a world that was at once silent and full of noise.
About The Relatives
Lila is on a long, painful journey toward motherhood. Tess and Emily are reeling after their ugly separation and fighting over ownership of the embryos that were supposed to grow their family together. And thousands of miles away, the unknown man who served as anonymous donor to them all is being held in captivity in Somalia. While his life remains in precarious balance, his genetic material is a source of both creation and conflict.
What does it mean to be a family in our rapidly shifting world? What are our responsibilities to each other with increasing options for how to create a family?
As these characters grapple with life-altering changes, they will find themselves interconnected in ways they cannot have imagined, and forced to redefine what family means to them.