Sweetness in the Belly Paperback – Feb 14 2006
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
With sure-handed, urgent prose, Gibb (The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life) chronicles the remarkable spiritual and geographical journey of a white British Muslim woman who struggles with cultural contradictions to find community and love. Lilly Abdal, orphaned at age eight after the murder of her hippie British parents, grows up at an Islamic shrine in Morocco. The narrative alternates between Harar, Ethiopia, in the 1970s, where she moved in pilgrimage at age 16, and London, England, in the '80s, where she lives in exile from Africa, working as a nurse. Ignoring the cries of "farenji," or foreigner, she starts a religious Muslim school in Harar. Later, in London, along with her friend Amina, Lilly runs a community association for family reunification of Ethiopian refugees. Each month, she reads the list of people who've escaped famine and the brutal Dergue regime, hoping to find Dr. Aziz Abdulnasser, her half-Sudanese lover who chose Africa over their relationship. Despite some predictability of plot, the novel fluently speaks the "languages of religion and exile," depicting both the multifaceted heartbreak of those lucky enough to escape violent regime changes and the beauty of unlikely bonds created by the modern multicultural world. (Mar. 20)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
SWEETNESS is not your run of the mill book, being a more meditative look at orphaned Lily, the novel's protagonist. With the books different settings and different takes on religion and their effects, the author has woven a tale that will keep you captivated for hours. I read somewhere that this is Gibb's third novel and I can't wait to read the others---if they're anywhere as good as this she's bound to become more and more successful. I highly recommend this book along with two others I've recently read that I loved: Brick Lane, and the novel Bark of the Dogwood---both are great, though the settings and ideas are totally different.
PLOT DESCRIPTION (no real spoilers, but please skip if you prefer not to know!):
Lilly is the only child of a couple of wandering, hippy English parents: "born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in the Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from nappies in Sicily and walking by the time we got to the Algarve." In Morocco, she's left in the care of the Great Abdal while her parents go jaunting, only to learn she is suddenly an orphan. Raised by the Great Abdal, a muslim Sheikh, and Mohammed Bruce Mahmoud, a "fiery-haired" ex-British Muslim convert, she found that "once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qu'ran, something troubled in me became still." When she is 16, she and her friend Hussein make a pilgrimage to the city of Harar in Ethiopia, to the compound of Sheikh Jami Abdullah Rahman, direct descendent of a saint. On route, they stay at the Emperor of Ethiopia's palace, courtesy of a letter of introduction from Mohammed Bruce.Read more ›
Lilly, born in England but, after the murder of her peripatetic parents in Morocco, remains there and is raised at a Muslim shrine by the Great Abdal, a Sufi teacher, to become a devout Muslim. She is eight years old. When forced to leave Morocco at the age of sixteen due to political upheavals, she embarks on a pilgrimage across the Sahara desert to the ancient holy city of Harar in Ethiopia. Not being accepted as a white girl in the household of the local sheikh, she is sent off to live with a poor cousin of one of his wives. Nouria, single mother of four, subsists in a shack in a deprived part of town. Gibb evokes the sounds and smells of the place, creating an authentic portrait of the harsh life of its inhabitants. Nouria and the neighbours start off being hostile of this "farenji" who knows the Qur'an better than they do. It takes Lilly considerable time and effort to be accepted.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
While the culture aspect of the novel was interesting to read, I thought the story itself was rather boring and drawn out.Published 5 months ago by A Customer
Despite the traumatic and violent true historical events movingly featured in this excellent novel, there is a sense that love is as perennial as the grass. Read morePublished on June 10 2014 by Eleanor Cowan
It is really frightening how little we know about Ethiopia. Well written, great characters. Thank you for this story to enlighten my life.Published on Feb. 18 2014 by Masadoon
Well written, would recommend it to anyone wanting to understand this culture. Easy to read and keeps the reader involved.Published on Aug. 1 2013 by Elva Sullivan
Title: Sweetness in the Belly
Author: Camilla Gibb
Publisher: Anchor Canada
Source: Personal Copy
Synopsis:... Read more
I loved this book!! Although the story was largely centered around the Harari religion I did not feel bogged down in technical language or description. Read morePublished on March 23 2009 by BigJspice
Set primarily in Ethiopia during the 1980s famine, protagonist Lily, or the "farenji" (the white European) tries to stay true to her Muslim faith while falling in love with the... Read morePublished on Aug. 18 2008 by Amy