Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Fallout of Sexual Abuse

Going through my Camilla Gibb phase in anticipation of the lady coming for the Litfest and my interview with her. I found her first two novels in the British Council Library, and then later bought copies (20% off!) at Kinokuniya.

Mouthing the Words is a powerfully engaging and highly readable novel about growing up in a dysfuctional family.

Thelma is five when the story opens. The family live in a village called Little Slaughter where they are ostracized as outsiders by the neighbours. Thelma's mother, Corinna, a former model, wants little to do with her daughter and relegates her "to the realm of the rather inconvenient", preferring to shower affection on her younger brother, the result of an affair with an Edinburgh solicitor.

Thelma is sexually abused by her alcholic father, Douglas, and made to play games of naughty secretaries and bosses. Unable to communicate this terrible secret to anyone outside the family, Thelma invents three invisible friends each representing an aspect of herself, who help her to cope. She longs, in vain, for another adult to adopt her.

The family move to Canada where things worsen, her parents eventually separating. There is a friendship with the hippyish family next door, and an all too brief period of happiness when her mother takes a Punjabi student as a lover, the first adult who really reaches out to the love-starved Thelma.

Thelma is institutionalised with anorexia - starvation is the only way she can physically prevent herself from becoming an adult woman, but recovers to win a scholarship to Oxford to study law. Although she proves to be a brilliant student, she rapidly descends into serious mental illness and self-mutilation.

Gibb is able to portray a descent into madness better than almost any other author I've come across (with perhaps the exception of Bessie Head in Maru) and her depiction of the psychological effects of abuse is extremely convincing. And we're right there to cheer on Thelma's slow journey to reclaim herself, and to be able to own her own words.

Sounds like a misery read? Far from it. The material is dark, but Gibbs has a lightness of touch and a humour (some parts are extremely funny!) that pulls the book back from being heartbreakingly sad.

Would I recommend this book? You betcha! And if you miss the author at the Litfest, she will also be signing copies oh her books in Kinokuniya 30th March at 7.30 p.m..

Now on to her second novel ...

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