From the Publisher
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
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
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
From the Jacket
One of Amazon.ca's Best Books of 2005
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
-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."
"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."
"Ambitious . . . vivid and rich in detail, politically relevant and
-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."
"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
"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
-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."
"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
"The power of [Gibb's] fiction is that one assumes nothing. Gibb is
too intelligent an author to take the easy path."
About 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 and The Petty Details
of So-and-so's Life, have been translated into eleven
languages and published to rave reviews around the world. She is
one of 21 writers on the "Orange Futures List" - a list of young
writers to watch, compiled by the jury of the prestigious Orange
Prize. She is currently Writer in Residence at the University of
1. Discuss Lilly's role as an outsider and her struggle for
acceptance both as a farenji in Harar and as a white
Muslim in London. Who else in the novel could be considered an
2. What do the words "family" and "home" mean to Lilly? How does
her view of herself as an orphan evolve over the course of the
3. "Faith has accompanied me over time and geography and
upheaval," says Lilly. For her, love and Islam "have always been
one." Did Sweetness in the Belly in any
way alter or broaden your understanding of Islam? Consider, for
instance, the notion of jihad or holy war.
4. Sweetness in the Belly alternates between
Harar, Ethiopia, in the 70s, and London, England, in the 80s and
early 90s. What qualities does this crosscutting of time and place
impart to the narrative?
5. In the chapter entitled "Exile," Lilly observes that "the
smell of coffee draws women together, an olfactory call throughout
a neighbourhood luring women from their homes to gather…" Later in
the chapter, the act of twisting a mortar over coffee beans and
cardamom triggers in her a surge of nightmarish images from the Red
Terror. Of the many lush sensory details in the novel - both fair
and foul - which affected you the most?
6. While living in Ethiopia, Camilla Gibb witnessed a female
circumcision. A doctoral student in social anthropology at the
time, she says she had to "understand it in the context of the
community in which it was taking place, and not judge." When
Nouria's daughters are circumcised in Sweetness in the
Belly, how does Lilly react as the only Western-born
character in the scene? How did you react as a reader?
7. Based on your reading of Sweetness in the
Belly, what feelings and psychological states are
associated with the experience of exile? How do Amina and Yusuf,
for example, cope with their respective traumas?
8. In Harar, Aziz is called a "black savage, African slave,
barbarian, pagan." In London, Lilly is called a "white fu'in Paki."
Discuss the notion of "otherness" in the novel. How do artificial
divisions manifest themselves based on ethnicity, class, race,
religion and gender?
9. Discuss the ways in which the female characters ensure their
survival and empower themselves despite the gender divisions within
10. What does Lilly mean when she says that Aziz "unveiled" her?
How does she reconcile her love for him with her love of Islam?