Sweetness in the Belly
When Lilly is eight years old, her pot-smoking hippie British parents leave her at a Sufi shrine in Morocco and inform her they will be back to collect her in three days. Three weeks later, she learns they’ve been murdered. Lilly fills that haunted hollow in her life with intense study and memorization of the Qur’an under the patient care of the Sufi saint’s disciple she was entrusted to. Years later, her journey from Morocco to Harar, Ethiopia, is half pilgrimage, half flight. In Harar, even her very traditional Muslim head scarves cannot hide her white skin in her new and strange surroundings; the word “farenji”—foreigner—is hissed at her everywhere she turns. She eventually builds a life for herself teaching children the Qur’an, and she finds herself falling in love with an idealistic young doctor. But the two are wrenched apart when Lilly is again forced to flee, for her safety and his, this time to London. Despite her British roots, Lilly discovers she is as much an outsider in London as a Muslim as she was in Harar as a white foreigner.
Gibb’s haunting narrative takes us seamlessly on a journey between these two distinct worlds: the ancient walled city of Harar and the racially charged atmosphere of 1980s London. Gibb richly evokes the stinging disconnect between Lilly’s past life and her present life, between her attempts to start anew and her inability to let go of the past. Lilly’s story is laced with longing and regret, but above all hope—hope that time and love can heal the rifts of her turbulent past. Camilla Gibb has pulled off an astounding feat with this stunning novel; never has the distinct and troubled history of this corner of Ethiopia been told with such humanity, warmth, clarity, and grace.
The protagonist of this meditative and elegantly written novel represents an unusual demographic. White, English, and orphaned at eight, Lilly grows up in Morocco as a Muslim, moves to Harar, Ethiopia, for five years and settles in London after political upheaval makes her vulnerable in Harar. A stranger everywhere, she has a knack for making homes and building communities anywhere: as a valued teacher of the Qur’an to Harari children, and as friend and nurse to Ethiopian exiles in London. “You put roots and they’ll start growing,” her bohemian parents told her to justify their nomadic ways. But grown-up Lilly actively seeks roots and relationships, agonizing over the uprootings that famine, corruption, and political instability made inevitable for Ethiopians in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her narrative shuttles between two cosmopolitan cities, two tumultuous decades, and two significant others. Aziz is an Ethiopian doctor she falls for in Harar but is wrenched away from literally (perhaps too literally) after giving him her virginity. Dr. Gupta is an Indian whose courtship of her in London is handicapped by the flame she still holds for Aziz. Not knowing if the latter is alive or dead, Lilly has remained suspended in a 17-year limbo between grief and desperate hope.
Sweetness in the Belly is obviously not your average doctor-and-nurse story. Indeed, Gibbs’s aim is to portray a largely invisible society. Ethiopia, Lilly says, is just “a starving impoverished nation…of famine and refugees” in the Western imagination. Steeped in research but wearing it lightly, the novel renders a culture and dozens of people convincingly (though the parallel story lines make keeping characters straight a challenge). Lilly, with her religious fervour, multiple languages, and basic decency, is a believable insider and appealing consciousness. The self-protective emotional coolness of her London self, however, casts a shadow over the Harar narrative, where a contrasting tone could have conveyed her youthful optimism and passion. One might also wish the political back-story of famine and Haile Selassie’s fall were more integrated into the plot; Gibb seems as keen to protect characters as they are to protect each other, sacrificing opportunities for drama and suspense. But these are small flaws in a precise, textured, suitably bittersweet novel. —John C. Ball