Sunday, September 13, 2009

Petty Details

Reaching into the bag of "Brit Lit" last July I was surprised to find a novel that took place in Canada.  Camilla Gibb was born in London but grew up in Toronto and still lives in Canada.  Her second novel, The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life, was published in 2002 and I'm sorry I missed it and didn't read it earlier.   

The story could have been very depressing.  Gibb creates a pair of siblings, Emma and Blue Taylor, and takes us through their early lives into young adulthood.  They are the children of dysfunctional (to say the least) parents.  Their father is a dreamer of dreams that never pan out - inventions that never get invented.  Their mother is ... depressed.  The children have only each other and develop a very close bond.  They communicate in their own language.  They even try to communicate without words.  But in some ways their bond is also dysfunctional because in many ways they don't understand each other and as they grow older they realize that they react to the earlier abuse by their father (and mother) in very different ways.

This could have been a very depressing novel but Gibb's witty writing relieves the grimness of the narrative.    For instance, when the family moves to Niagara Falls there is no room in the fully packed car for the children, so the mother puts the four and five year old children on a bus by themselves with a sign:  "Niagara Falls or Bust".  And they make it there safely.

The day that their father leaves the family and disappears is the day their lives diverge.  Blue's life becomes an ongoing search for his father.  Emma tries to live her life but realizes that she is a dreamer like her father.  She becomes an archaeology student and discovers that nobody wants to hear the big theory - in archaeology it is the petty details that matter. 

This is the story of two children who are too close to each other and who have to become separate.  In the end Blue makes a strange sacrifice that he thinks is to save his sister.  But far from seeming the pointless act that it, in fact, is, the reader can recognize it as an act of love.