In her third novel, Camilla Gibb takes readers to the often overlooked country of Ethiopia. Gibb intertwines a story of exile in Thatcher’s London with a past pious existence in Haile Selassie’s politically unstable Ethiopia to create a dynamic tapestry of one woman’s life.
This woman is Lilly, a devout white Muslim who struggles in her position as the perpetual outsider. Lilly was born to nudist hippies who traipsed around the world, and her childhood was filled with instability. Finally, abandoned in Africa, Lilly clung to Islam, through which she found the consistency that eluded her early childhood. Indeed, it is Lilly’s unquestioning faith in Islam that helps her gain acceptance in the Ethiopian city of Harar.
Her sense of permanence is shattered when political upheaval forces her to flee to London, where her Islamic Ethiopian consciousness struggles in a state of exile. She proudly wears her bright veil to Friday prayers in London, only to be reprimanded by a drunken lout – “Master race. Go’ it?” Once again, Lilly is the outsider.
Sweetness in the Belly weaves four years of Lilly’s experiences in Ethiopia with her life in London. The novel opens with Lilly’s exile existence in gloomy London, where she forms a strong friendship with Amina, an Ethiopian refugee. They establish a community association to help reunite family members who have fled Ethiopia. However, both Amina and Lilly have other, less altruistic reasons for their work: Amina is looking for her husband, and Lilly fervently hopes to find the lover she left behind in Ethiopia.
Lilly’s love affair with Aziz begins in Harar, when he treats a young Ethiopian girl who survives a botched circumcision. For the first time, Lilly’s pure and pious life is threatened. When she thinks of Aziz, “the bees would awaken, rush into my throat and dance on the tip of my tongue, depositing pollen between my teeth, making it difficult to recite anything at all.” Throughout, Lilly’s commitment to Islam remains strong, as she unfalteringly teaches the Qu’ran to the poor neighbourhood children and happily embraces Harari customs.
Gibb challenges the reader by presenting a protagonist who is difficult to identify with, and not always likeable. Despite her annoying self-righteousness, Lilly’s struggle with her human flaws authenticates her character. Amina balances Lilly’s bitter rigidity, as she flirtatiously flounces around in her tartan skirt. Lilly embodies the many contradictions of love, religion, science, and culture, as she tries to embrace an openness that allows these elements to coexist.
The novel offers many insights on religion, race, and exile. Through the white figure of Lilly, Gibb deculturalizes Islam and reveals the vibrant possibilities it affords – a fact often forgotten in today’s political landscape. From the unpacked boxes in the homes of Ethiopian refugees to Lilly’s stubborn hold on the past, readers see that exile is often based on the myth of return. And racism is ubiquitous, even within the non-colonized walls of Harar.
Gibb balances this heaviness with lush imagery that transports the reader to Lilly’s world. The “glittering … bright head scarves and beaded shawls” in the city of Harar dazzle the reader, the “staggered chorus of muezzins” is a loud awakening, and the smell of incense and sweat in Lilly’s secret meetings with Aziz is hypnotic. Gibb also presents social commentary through humour. However, these few instances of clever wit leave the reader wanting more.
All of these details of a most unusual place and story weave a human tapestry of love, loss, and survival. This “outsider’s struggle to assert a place … and the euphoric, if fleeting, sense of peace in finding one” leaves the reader with a sweetness that comes from something fresh and new.