Sweetness in the Belly

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.”

Reviews

One of Amazon.ca’s Best Books of 2005
National Bestseller
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.”
Time Magazine

“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.”
Elle Canada

“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.”
Ottawa Citizen

“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.”
National Post

“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.”
—Barbara Gowdy

“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.”
Edmonton Journal

“The power of [Gibb’s] fiction is that one assumes nothing. Gibb is too intelligent an author to take the easy path.”
National Post