Lilly, the main character of Camilla Gibb’s stunning new novel, has anything but a stable childhood. The daughter of English/Irish hippies, she was “born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in the Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from nappies in Sicily and walking by the time [they] got to the Algarve…” The family’s nomadic adventure ends in Tangier when Lilly’s parents are killed in a drug deal gone awry. Orphaned at eight, Lilly is left in the care of a Sufi sheikh, who shows her the way of Islam through the Qur’an. When political turmoil erupts, Lilly, now sixteen, is sent to the ancient walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, where she stays in a dirt-floored compound with an impoverished widow named Nouria and her four children.
In Harar, Lilly earns her keep by helping with the household chores and teaching local children the Qur’an. Ignoring the cries of “farenji” (foreigner), she slowly begins to put down roots, learning the language and immersing herself in a culture rich in customs and rituals and lush with glittering bright headscarves, the chorus of muezzins and the scent of incense and coffee. She is drawn to an idealistic half-Sudanese doctor named Aziz, and the two begin to meet every Saturday at a social gathering. As they stay behind to talk, Lilly finds her faith tested for the first time in her life: “The desire to remain in his company overwhelmed common sense; I would pick up my good Muslim self on the way home.” Just as their love begins to blossom, they are wrenched apart when the aging emperor Haile Selassie is deposed by the brutal Dergue regime. Lilly seeks exile in London, while Aziz stays to pursue his revolutionary passions.
In London, Lilly’s life as a white Muslim is no less complicated. A hospital staff nurse, she befriends a refugee from Ethiopia named Amina, whose daughter she helped to deliver in a back alley. The two women set up a community association to re-unite refugees with lost family members. Their work, however, isn’t entirely altruistic. Both women are looking for someone: Amina, her husband, Yusuf, and Lilly, Aziz, who remains firmly, painfully, implanted in her heart.
The first-person narrative alternates seamlessly between England (1981-91) and Ethiopia (1970-74), weaving a rich tapestry of one woman’s quest to maintain faith and love through revolution, upheaval and the alienation of life in exile.
Sweetness in the Belly was universally praised for the tremendous empathy that Gibb brings to an ambitious story. Kirkus Reviews writes that the novel "reflect(s) the pain, cultural relocation and uncertainty of tribal, political and religious refugees the world over. Gibb's territory is urgently modern and controversial but she enters it softly, with grace, integrity and a lovely compassionate story. [It is a] poem to belief and to the displaced–humane, resonant, original, impressive." According to the Literary Review of Canada, Sweetness in the Belly is “…a novel that is culturally sensitive, consummately researched and deeply compassionate…richly imagined, full of sensuous detail and arresting imagery…Gibb has smuggled Western readers into the centre of lives they might never otherwise come into contact with, let alone understand.”close this panel
The sun makes its orange way east from Arabia, over a Red Sea, across volcanic fields and desert and over the black hills to the qat- and coffee-shrubbed land of the fertile valley that surrounds our walled city. Night departs on the heels of the hyenas: they hear the sun’s approach as a hostile ringing, perceptible only to their ears, and it drives them back, bloody lipped and panic stricken, to their caves.
In darkness they have feasted on the city’s broken streets: devouring lame dogs in alleyways and licking eggshells and entrails off the ground. The people of the city cannot afford to waste their food, but nor can they neglect to feed the hyenas either. To let them go hungry is to forfeit their role as people on this wild earth, and strain the already tenuous ties that bind God’s creatures.
A hundred years ago, when the city’s gates were still closed at night — the key lodged firmly under the sleeping head of a neurotic emir — the hyenas were the only outsiders permitted access after dark. They would crawl through the drainage portals in the city’s clay walls. But the gates are splayed open now, have been for decades, a symbol of history’s turn against this Muslim outpost, a city of saints and scholars founded by Arabs who brought Islam to Abyssinia in the ninth century, the former capital of an emirate that once ruled for hundreds of miles.
For all the fear they inspire, though, if a hyena must die, one hopes it might do so on one’s doorstep. Pluck its eyebrows, fashion a bracelet, and you are guaranteed protection from buda, the evil eye. Endure the inconvenience of having to step over a hideous corpse baking in the African sun all day, but be assured that by the following morning, thanks to hyenas’ lack of inhibitions regarding cannibalism, the street will once again be licked clean.
As every day begins, the anguished cries of these feral children grow dim against a rising crescendo of birds quibbling in the pomegranate and lime trees of the city’s courtyards. And then the muezzins call: beckoning the city’s sleeping populace with a shower of praise for an almighty God. There are ninety-nine of them within the walls of this tiny city — ninety-nine muezzins for ninety-nine mosques. It takes the culmination of the staggered, near-simultaneous beginnings of a hundred less one to create the particular sound that is heard as Godliness in Harar.
* * * * * * *
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
On a wet night in Thatcher’s Britain, a miracle was delivered onto the pockmarked pavement behind a decrepit building once known as Lambeth Hospital. Four women standing flanked by battered rubbish bins looked up to a close English sky and thanked Allah for this sign of his generosity. Two women ululated, one little boy, shy and tired, buried his face in his mother’s neck, and one baby stamped with a continent-shaped mole tried out her lungs. Her wail was mighty and unselfconscious, and with it, she announced that we had all arrived in England. None of us had hitherto had the confidence to be so brazen.
I was one of those four women. I trained in this God-forsaken building, a gothic nightmare of a place, a former workhouse where the poor were imprisoned and divided — men from women, aged and infirm from able bodied, able-bodied good from able-bodied bad — each forced to break a daily quota of stone in order to earn their keep. Adjacent is the old infirmary, which once had its own Register of Lunatics, among them a woman named Hannah Chaplin diagnosed with acute psychosis resulting from syphilis while in residence there with her seven-year-old son Charlie, some eighty years ago.
I don’t share this history though I’ve moved within its walls. In the places I have lived, the aged and the infirm and the psychotic are not separated from the rest of us. They are part of us. I don’t share this history, but as a child, I did see a Charlie Chaplin film in a cinema in Tangier through the smoke of a hundred cigarettes. I sat cross-legged between my parents on a wooden bench, a carpet of peanut shells at our feet, the audience roaring with laughter, united by the shared language of bodies without words.
Amazing that humour could ever be borne of this place. The building now stands condemned, slated for demolition, and I work at South Western, a hospital largely catering to the poor from the beleaguered housing estates in the surrounding areas: the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the unemployed white, the Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the refugees and asylum seekers, the latest wave of which has been rolling in from torn parts of East Africa, principally Eritrea and Sudan.
Many of these claimants avoid the hospital, overwhelmed or intimidated as they are by the agents and agencies of the state — the customs officers, police, civil servants, lawyers, social workers and doctors — with their unreadable expressions and their unreadable forms. I know this, because they are my neighbours. I encounter them in the elevator, in the laundrette, in the dimly lit concrete corridors of high-rises on the Cotton Gardens Estate. I’ve lived in a one-bedroom council flat on the fourteenth floor of one of these buildings since the autumn of 1974 — compensation for the circumstances of my arrival.
My white face and white uniform give me the appearance of authority in this new world, though my experiences, as my neighbours quickly come to discover, are rooted in the old. I’m a white Muslim woman raised in Africa, now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present. I can translate the forms for them before kneeling down and putting my forehead to the same ground. Linoleum, concrete, industrial carpet. Five times a day, wherever we might be, however much we might doubt ourselves and the world around us.
I was not always a Muslim, but once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in me became still.
Camilla Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University for which she conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia. Her two previous novels, Mouthing the Words and The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, have been translated into eleven languages and published to rave reviews around the world. She is one of 21 writers on the “Orange Futures List” — a list of young writers to watch, compiled by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize. She is currently Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto.close this panel
One of Amazon.ca's Best Books of 2005
Winner of the Trillium Book Award
A Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalist
A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of 2005
“Sweetness in the Belly is a timely and compelling novel of ideas which explores the ethics of cultural identity in a multicultural era. . . . [It] is a sophisticated, ambitious and deeply affecting novel which is devastatingly relevant to our contemporary world.”
–2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury citation
“Gibb’s Africa is finely crafted, as is her delicate rendering of the complexities of Ethiopian society. . . . The book rings true.”
“This complex tale about exile, romance and human rights combines the authority of Gibb’s scholarship on social anthropology with the lushness of her fictional vision.”
"Ambitious . . . vivid and rich in detail, politically relevant and eminently readable."
—The Globe and Mail
"This is a rarity, a novel that transforms expectations. A hugely ambitious work executed with deceptive ease, it is an unbelievably odd tale, yet utterly convincing, able to transport us behind closed borders and back again. . . . The back-and-forth structure succeeds brilliantly . . . With Sweetness in the Belly, you know something other than lived experience is at work, and that something is a roving mind, a questing heart. Watching them land like butterflies on raw truth is a marvellous sight to behold."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"A marvellous, highly absorbing read bound to strike up conversations at award time."
"Full of life and keen observation of women and how they rise above the terrible things that can happen to them, how they form communities, how they find strength to begin again. This may be Lilly’s story, but behind her stands the larger story of her Muslim friends. They are what make the novel so extraordinary, so rich."
"Camilla Gibb’s integration of history and fiction in Sweetness and the Belly is superb. . . . Gibb’s crowning achievement is a knack for creating believable historical characters. Characters whose credibility is anchored by the convincing commonplace of their lives."
—Winnipeg Free Press
“A wonderful feat of imagination and empathy. I had to suppress bitter feelings of literary envy, even as I couldn't stop devouring it.”
—Louis de Bernières
“Sweetness in the Belly is a deeply imagined immersion into the lives of people for whom war, poverty, marginalization and exile are the commonplace trials. Gibb’s understanding of this world seems almost uncanny but it is her compassion for her characters that impressed me the most. Here is a novel that challenges and disturbs as it enlightens and uplifts. A really exceptional achievement.”
“With Sweetness in the Belly, Camilla Gibb offers persuasive testimony about her ambition as a novelist. . . . This novel is impressive for its geographic and thematic broadness alone. Gibb makes it that much more remarkable with the careful attention she gives to the psychology of belonging.”
—The Vancouver Sun
Praise for the work of Camilla Gibb:
"Camilla Gibb is surely one of the most talented writers around. . . . She can do funny, she can do sad, she can do sex. I suspect that there is little this wonderful woman cannot do."
—The Times (London)
"If you love literature, but are feeling discouraged by mediocre books, here’s the cure. . . Camilla Gibb has released a startingly beautiful account of an ordinary life, showcasing her ability to transform the normal into the fantastic. The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life secures Gibb’s status as an extraordinary talent."
"The power of [Gibb’s] fiction is that one assumes nothing. Gibb is too intelligent an author to take the easy path."