We trust that what we know to be normal is normal simply because it is known to us. Worlds meet in collision and the coherence of our histories crumble. I feel it in the blank looks I tend to receive at dinner parties. When other people recount stories, I habitually interject with statements like, "Oh yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I used to feel just like that when my father held me over the bridge by the armpits."So begins Camilla Gibb's debut novel Mouthing the Words, the compelling account of one young woman's years of abuse. When Thelma emigrates with her English family to Canada as a child, she packs away a large assortment of imaginary friends: there is Heroin, who is "the biggest, the bravest, the most grown-up"; Janawee, who cried an "awful lot because she was scared of almost everything" and Ginniger, who "sometimes played mother, sometimes Heroin's baby girl and sometimes Daddy's naughty secretary". Thelma's fertile imagination is blamed for a lot of things, particularly her rather elaborate stories about Daddy. Granted access to Thelma's inner world, the reader cannot turn a blind eye and is consequently spared nothing. This is not easy reading but Gibb's simple, lucid prose conveys the horror of the situation without ever reducing it to the voyeuristic. In her mind's eye, Thelma can turn into a stick insect, pinned to the ceiling, "safe there and rigid and tight and looking down on the immense world below" and an icicle "hard as ice, and as shiny and beautiful and clear as pure water" while her father stays down below with the other Thelma.
Gibb's exquisite prose translates a harrowing world of child abuse, mental illness and institutionalism into the most startling, powerful imagery with such simplicity and directness that she leaves you in awe. The episodes in which this spirited, puritanical child clashes with the grown-up world are sometimes hilarious, always poignant, with occasionally heartbreaking results: "I am eighteen and I am still not adopted. How many people have I asked? Mr Foster my biology teacher took that as an invitation to stick his tongue in my mouth--and after that, well, that was only recently, but I've decided to give up". Camilla Gibb's debut novel Mouthing the Words is not only a testament to her ability as a writer but testimony of a voice that all too often goes unheard. --Nicola Perry