Camilla Gibb’s talent as an insightful and highly credible story teller is once again demonstrated in this, her third novel. Having spent two years in Ethiopia doing field research towards her PhD in social anthropology, she has a privileged connection with its religious, political and social practices. Sweetness in the Belly provides us with a rare glimpse into the Ethiopian Muslim milieu and the effects of living in a country undergoing major political upheaval.
Lilly, the daughter of perpetually travelling, hippy parents, is unexpectedly orphaned at the age of eight and left to live at a Sufi shrine in Morocco. Here, she embraces the Qur’an, devoting herself to its wisdom and discipline. Later, as a teenager, she journeys to Harar in Ethiopia with her male companion, full of the excitement and expectation of what such a pilgrimage means to her faith. Being white, though, and a farenji, as foreigners are called, she is rejected by the Sheikh in Harar and forced to live with relatives of his youngest wife, essentially as a servant.
Through Lilly’s tale we witness what it is like to be a woman and poor in Ethiopian Muslim culture, and how gender and racial hierarchies operate and extend into the lives of everyone. Lilly’s devotion as a Sufi Muslim is her savior in this seemingly dire place, however, as she takes on the role of teacher of the Qur’an to the children in the community. Over time she gains a measure of respect and is tolerated: even her whiteness seems to eventually go unnoticed. However, her world is once again thrown into chaos when Ethiopia’s turmoil and instability reach a political climax. A coup in 1974 sees the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, leading to literally thousands of innocent Ethiopians being tortured and murdered and refugees seeking asylum worldwide. Lilly, too, is forced to find her way out of the country back to London, where, unwittingly, she once again experiences prejudice. Not for the whiteness of her skin this time, but for her religious practices as a Muslim.
The novel is written in such a way that it moves back and forth in time between Lilly’s life in Harar and her later life in London. In this way, we see the events from each era gradually working their way together, providing us with a complete story. As a centre piece to the tale, Lilly’s relationship with a young doctor in Harar and their separation when she leaves Ethiopia provide a catalyst for informing us of the tragedies that befell so many families – some would be re-united, most would not, and those that were, could never be the same again. Reuniting displaced families becomes Lilly’s cause and obsession in London, both for others and for herself.
This is an enthralling and informative work of fiction, and although its content may seem heavy, Gibb’s easy-flowing, style and natural gift for story-telling, make it a book that is hard to put down.