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.
Source: Purchased at a thrift store
I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I started reading this book. It was originally purchased on a whim, and now that I have finished it, I have no regrets. Like in the summary; we follow the protagonist, Lilly, in her life during her mid-teens as a developed, fundamental orthodox Muslim and how her life is thrown in a roller-coaster of emotions, events – both political and personal, and the people she encounters along the way.
Lilly was born of parents who wanted to live a rebellious life without the social prejudices and took their life to the road. Her mother with child and her father leading the way they traveled to many countries and lived many lives, later resulting in their life ending early due to unforeseen circumstances to Lilly. Leaving their daughter to be brought up as a devout, white, Muslim girl.
There is much emotional turmoil in Sweetness in the Belly. Once I had finished I felt emotionally drained. There were certain parts I wished hadn’t happened, and as much there still was a “happy ending” it wasn’t the ending I would’ve liked. But that’s what I get for believing in “happily ever after”, where a princess has her prince and they ride off in the sunset. The happy ending in this book makes one remember that even though you lived a particular life it doesn’t mean you can’t change things and start a new chapter; take a new path.
However, although I know very little about the actual wars that occurred in East Africa, I still felt slightly connected to the information I was being fed, in the form of a fiction. Although the bounce between the “then” and “now”, I felt like I was Lilly. Living, witnessing, feeling and longing for the things that were happening and the desire to help change the things that weren’t.
If Hollywood was looking for a new muse, I would throw this book on the table. Suggesting it be recreated like the novel The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides when it was made into a movie. Without any alterations this book is a small piece of what, by some vague assumption, had happened nearly 15 years ago. I was young then, but the older I get the more I realize how little I really know.
Sweetness in the Belly is another novel I would highly recommend for anybody. Warning there is a chapter that has some sexual content in it, but nothing more than something that could’ve gone further but was prevented by the impatience of an 98-year-old man with Narcolepsy, so it’s really a piece of erotic humor.