×

Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Sweetness in the Belly
     

Sweetness in the Belly

4.3 11
by Camilla Gibb
 

See All Formats & Editions

Like Brick Lane and The Kite Runner, Camilla Gibb’s widely praised new novel is a poignant and intensely atmospheric look beyond the stereotypes of Islam. After her hippie British parents are murdered, Lilly is raised at a Sufi shrine in Morocco. As a young woman she goes on pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where she teaches Qur’an to children

Overview

Like Brick Lane and The Kite Runner, Camilla Gibb’s widely praised new novel is a poignant and intensely atmospheric look beyond the stereotypes of Islam. After her hippie British parents are murdered, Lilly is raised at a Sufi shrine in Morocco. As a young woman she goes on pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where she teaches Qur’an to children and falls in love with an idealistic doctor. But even swathed in a traditional headscarf, Lilly can’t escape being marked as a foreigner. Forced to flee Ethiopia for England, she must once again confront the riddle of who she is and where she belongs.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Utterly convincing and authentic . . . a novel that will take you to a place so far from yourself that you may wonder, from time to time, whether you are ever coming back. (San Francisco Chronicle)

A story that pierces the heart . . . a lovely and humane book that . . . open[s] up to view distant or closed worlds. (The Miami Herald)

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 Bernieres, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)

Publishers Weekly
While Kate Reading has a beautiful narrator's voice, low and lilting, dramatic and enticing, her characterizations are problematic. She often uses an annoying little-girl voice for protagonist Lilly, a white Western woman raised in a Moroccan shrine as a devout Muslim, living through the 1970s among Ethiopian Muslims who consider her a "forenji" (foreigner) despite her Arabic fluency and her Islamic piety. Reading also casts many of the Ethiopian women in a harsh, high range that makes them sound rather silly. Still, this is an engrossing listen because the novel is well written and timely. Gibb's prose rhythms are lovely, her language sensuous, her images vivid and her story of love doomed by political reality dramatic and moving. We move back and forth between the daily routines of deeply devoted families in Harar in the 1970s as Ethiopia disintegrates, and of the exile community in London in the '80s as Lilly awaits word of her Sudanese lover, who chose to stay on to fight the Haile Selassie regime. Without avoiding cultural aspects Westerners find so repulsive-a description of ritual clitoridectomy is almost unbearable-the reading exposes us to Muslim communities quite different from those written about in daily newspapers, communities worthy of respect, concern and action. Available as a Penguin Press paperback. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Called farenji-foreigner-in Ethiopia and subsequently nurse at London's Lambeth Hospital, Lilly is a devout white Muslim woman who doesn't really belong to one culture. When she was eight, her wandering parents left her in the care of the Great Abdal-and never returned owing to a fatal car accident. Soon after, the local saint became Lilly's guardian and taught her the Qur'an. In 1969, when political upheaval comes to Morocco, she makes a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Harar in Ethiopia. Here she begins to teach the Qur'an to local children and falls in love with a young doctor who leaves an indelible mark on her life. In 1974, she is again forced to flee, this time to London. Canadian writer Gibb (The Petty Details) intertwines time, cultures, politics, race, and family, giving readers an inside look at life as a foreigner in a different culture than most of us experience. Politically intriguing while also touching on love and loss, this well-wrought work should enthrall Western readers. Recommended for larger literary collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/05.]-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A white Muslim woman's affecting spiritual and emotional quests, as a misfit in two cultures. Gibb (Mouthing the Words, 2001, etc.) immerses herself completely in her gravely empathetic narration of the unusual life of Lilly, daughter of hippies murdered in Morocco, leaving her orphaned, aged eight, in the care of distinguished Muslim guardians who later send her for safety to Ethiopia. Lilly's unique cross-cultural perspective is Gibb's means of access to a belief and a country rarely tackled by contemporary Western writers. Moving from the walled city of Harar in the 1970s to a run-down London borough in the '80s, Lilly switches between differently impoverished locations where her identity is tested and modified by varying degrees of oppression and incomprehension. Hers is a story of female communities where women not only work, cook, give birth and apply makeup, but also circumcise their daughters, select husbands and fight for legitimacy. In Harar, Lilly's white skin defines her as a farenji (foreigner), and her education in the Qur'an isolates her further, but she earns her acceptance by teaching poor children, thereby also gaining the admiration of a progressive doctor, Aziz, whom she learns to love. When famine strikes Ethiopia and the political climate shifts from relative tolerance to dictatorship, Lilly flees to England, where she will spend agonized years speculating on Aziz's fate. In London, she not only becomes a nurse but also, with Ethiopian friend Amina, sets up an agency to re-connect refugee Ethiopians, which is how Amina rediscovers her husband Yusuf, damaged by torture and incarceration. Scarred Yusuf, increasingly Westernized Amina, grieving Lilly-now wooed by aHindu doctor-reflect 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. A poem to belief and to the displaced-humane, resonant, original, impressive.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143038726
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/27/2007
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
368
Sales rank:
343,048
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue
Harar, Ethiopia

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

Part One
London, England
1981–85

Scar Tissue

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.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Utterly convincing and authentic . . . a novel that will take you to a place so far from yourself that you may wonder, from time to time, whether you are ever coming back. (San Francisco Chronicle)

A story that pierces the heart . . . a lovely and humane book that . . . open[s] up to view distant or closed worlds. (The Miami Herald)

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 Bernieres, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)

Meet the Author

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, winner of the City of Toronto Book Award in 2000, and The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life, have been published in eighteen countries and translated into fourteen languages, receiving rave reviews all around the world. She is one of twenty-one writers on the Orange Futures List—a list of young writers to watch, compiled by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize. Camilla lives in Toronto, where she serves as vice president of PEN Canada and is currently writerin-residence at the University of Toronto.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Sweetness in the Belly 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book by chance since I am always interested in reading of other cultures and far-off destinations. This story is so interesting charting her progress from English girl to Islamic scholar to Islamic English nurse.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book from cover to cover! It's more of a book for women I think because you can relate to her emotions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gibb's third novel, SWEETNESS, is a masterpiece of literature and emotion. Lily is the protagonist in this superb novel--an arphan who has no direction. But the love of her friend, Amina, makes Lily aware that there is actually 'something' to life. I was at once reminded of two other novels that are this deep and heartfelt, the first obviously being 'The Kite Runner' because of its settings, and the second being 'Bark of the Dogwood' which, though totally different in location and style, is nevertheless as heartfelf and full of the message of 'love redeems.' Dealing with Islam and all its ramifications, SWEETNESS is surely to be a bestseller soon, if not for the fact that it deals with a religion we all want to know more about, then for its excellent writing.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
The voice of Lily is so real, so authentic, so rich in ethnic detail that one is immediately drawn into this imagined story of a woman displaced in two worlds. Stage actress Kate Reading gives an affecting voice reading, capturing all of the erudition and emotion found within this remarkable protagonist. The daughter of English/Irish parents who spend much of their time in a drug induced haze, young Lily is very much left to herself, free to find amusement on the streets of Morocco. One day she is abandoned by her parents at a Sufi shrine, saying they will return in three days. That day never comes as they are found slain several weeks later. With no one to shelter her Lily is taken under the wing of an Englishman who has converted to Islam. At the age of eight the child's life begins anew as she will live in the shrine and spend her days in religious study. At the age of sixteen when many girls are thinking about buying prom. dresses Lily travels to Ethiopia where she teaches the Qur'an to local children. Once again the color of her skin betrays her, and she is an outsider there. Nonetheless, she falls in love with a young doctor. Years later the outbreak of war forces her to seek refuge in London where as a woman she is again an outsider. Yet, it is her faith that sustains her. Sweetness in the Belly offers a telling portrait of a far away world that few of us will ever see. Listen and enjoy. - Gail Cooke
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lilly, a ferenji child unintentionally deserted in the bosom of North Africa, grows up with strong roots throughout the region and even stronger ties to a mysterious and sensual Dr. Aziz. Lilly lives through the eyes of her refugee clients, having been spit out into a damp and unforgiving London as a refugee twice over. Gibb weaves a beautiful tapestry in Lilly, as we watch our heroine see her own reflection through the lives of her friends and acquaintances in Maroc, in Harar, and ultimately in London.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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. There is true grief and despair and yet, and yet, one day at a time, the world is born anew. Love is as alive as the courageous heart that risks feeling it once again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago