In the years since Tolstoy penned his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, his famous aphorism about unhappy families has served as a springboard for novelists of all backgrounds and nationalities to examine the seemingly endless ways fathers and sons, mothers and daughters can hurt, harry, and abuse one another. Indeed, with late-twentieth century cultural phenomena, such as the once-ubiquitous Oprah's Book Club to spur it on, the dysfunctional family novel has become almost a subgenre in its own right, spawning a cavalcade of authors to tackle the subject with varying degrees of success.
Camilla Gibb takes up the gauntlet in her second novel, The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life, a bleak, bitter, often darkly funny book that dissects one family's pain and torment with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel.
This time it is the Taylor family. Oliver, the patriarch of the Taylor clan, is unable to hold down a job, and feels that he was meant for better things than simply tending to the quotidian concerns of daily life. Oliver sees himself as an inventor, a creative genius just waiting to be discovered. The trouble is that he never actually creates anything. He is "prone to Big Ideas and Pronouncements," but seems to lack drive or the ability to follow through. This frustrates his wife, Elaine, who put her ambitions to be a writer on hold in order to mother her two children, Emma and Blue.
Brother and sister share an almost preternatural connection, which they use to shield themselves from their father's eccentricities and their mother's increasing agitation: "In their basement bubble, Emma and Blue learned how to hold each other's breath, becoming indistinguishable on the same oxygen. They began to take frequent refuge in the dank and musty grey space where they inhaled deeply, and got so dizzy that all they could hear were hearts pounding in their ears."
The children realize early that they cannot depend on mother or father for the kind of support and succor that might ordinarily be expected of parents; when Oliver packs up his family and moves from Montreal to Niagara Falls, there is not enough room in the car for all their possessions and four people, so Elaine puts the two siblings on a bus after hanging two large signs reading, "Niagara Falls or Bust" around their necks.
When their father disappears and their mother seeks solace in the bottle, that "middle-class thing she'd inherited from her parents," Emma and Blue begin individual quests to rid themselves of the pain of their past and forge their own unique identities. For Emma, this means leaving her mother's house and moving in with a surrogate family in an attempt to re-create herself. Blue finds himself unable to shake the ghost of his father, who remains lodged like a burr in the back of his mind, and travels across the country in pursuit of him.
Gibb's twin themes¨the desire to form a personal identity while liberating oneself from the clutches of the past¨are present throughout the novel, and govern the developmental trajectories of the two protagonists as they grow into adulthood. Emma enrolls in a university archaeology course, putting herself at one remove from Oliver, who thinks that university is "a waste of time." But Emma's choice of discipline is telling: she tries to sidestep her own damaged past by devoting her energies to a close examination of an impersonal past. Her attempt proves futile; she possesses too much of her father's wild impetuosity and is too prone to flights of fancy to succeed in the rigorously logical realm of science.
Similarly, Blue's attempt to outrun his past is complicated by his inability to shake the ghost of his father. His pursuit of Oliver¨whether to vanquish a demon or absolve a cripple in order to move on with his life¨drives him headlong towards the very thing that he is emotionally trying to escape.
While this may make Emma and Blue's story sound like an exercise in futility, in Gibb's adroit hands it never becomes this. Gibb is concerned with dramatizing the particular stranglehold that a shared familial history can have on people, but her sardonic sense of humour and her willingness to intersperse moments of tenderness and even beauty throughout her narrative prevent the book from becoming a paean to paralysis. Or, as one character asserts late in the novel, "you can't rely on the past as an excuse for the havoc you wreak in the present."
Gibb's writing is spare and unornamented, and only occasionally succumbs to the use of thudding clichT: "Blue's eardrums were numb from the sound of falling water and the only thing he could hear was the call of the wild." The use throughout the novel of butterflies as a metaphor for change and renewal also seems somewhat trite and hackneyed.
But Gibb's abilities as a stylist, for this reader, are not as important as her evident compassion for her characters, which is what ultimately lends the novel its soul. As the title suggests, The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life is not about grand gestures or sweeping events. Emma's archaeology professor tells her, "It's in the details. The petty details, of yours, mine, whoever's life, and how you make them all add up." It is these petty details that give such vibrant life to Gibb's fractured family. ˛