November 21st, 2012

Rose-coloured Reviews *Mouthing the Words* by Camilla Gibb

Wowsers. I’ve never read a book like Camilla Gibb‘s first novel Mouthing the Words. It’s terrifying, horrifying, very funny, and brilliant. I really needed this, having read such a series of deeply flawed, baffling, or dull novels recently that I was starting to wonder if the problem was me–if I just didn’t *like* novels anymore.

So I’m really grateful to Gibb’s book for saving the novel for me. Strange, of course, that I hadn’t read *Mouthing* before now, since it came out in 1999 and is really well thought of, as are all Gibb’s books. I’ve also met the author a number of times and even collaborated with her on The Journey Prize Stories 21 and can report that she’s a lovely human. Sometimes it’s just this sort of constellation of glowing praise and lovely humanness that can intimidate me into not reading a book for 13 years.

I’d also heard that *Mouthing the Words* is a tale of child abuse not for the faint of heart, and I sometimes am fainthearted, so that was another dissuasion. And while it’s true that some of the abuse is very very distressing, the wonderful voice that carries the story made me want to keep reading. That is the voice of Thelma, the protagonist, the abused child and later mental patient, anorexic, law student, friend, girlfriend, mess, saviour, nutjob, and possibly genius.

She’s very very funny, confused and ironic and weird. The voice reminded me a lot of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, the baffled crazy person persona not quite stifling a sharply sarcastic wit. The best bit in Bell Jar is when Esther wanders around with a noose around her neck, trailing rope like a cat’s tail, because she can’t find anywhere to fasten it in her smooth-ceilinged house. The best bit in *Mouthing the Words* is “I am eighteen and I am still note adopted. How many people have I asked? It’s starting to get embarrassing.” Tell me that doesn’t sound like Plath.

The novel is interesting because Thelma is sometimes self-aware and sometimes not, sometimes writing from the distant peaks of adulthood, and sometimes right in the thick of it with her young character. Sometimes it was not 100% photorealistic–like Thelma retains her imaginary friends into her 20s and it is difficult to tell whether she acknowledges them as symbolic or actually thinks they are speaking to her. I’m fine with that ambiguity, but I don’t know how to describe it really.

But certainly the book was realistic in many ways, particularly in the fact that there is no cosmic justice coming down at the end and smiting the evil-doers.I sometimes think that sexual abuse and other abuses of children is so popular in contemporary fiction because it’s so morally easy–who *doesn’t* think it’s terrible to have sex with little children? Who *wouldn’t* despise someone who did? It’s such a comfortably righteous position and in many novels that’s all you get–you know what evil is? Gold star! No thinking! Gibb’s novel goes beyond that by staying with the violated character for two decades and leaving the violator in the dirt–we never find out what happened to him, and no one seems to care. That’s his punishment. But Thelma lives on in the world and continues to punish herself and sometimes those around her, but she also has a life and it’s pretty interesting. There’s still some moral simplicity but we all need a little of that–Thelma’s much more like a human than a virtue embodied. She’s also damn funny.

Mouthing the Words is the 10th/October (I’m behind) book in my To Be Read 2012 Challenge (and probably my favourite so far). More to come.

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