Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla GibbSweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

Sweetness in the Belly

byCamilla Gibb

Paperback | February 14, 2006

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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.”
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 ar...
Title:Sweetness in the BellyFormat:PaperbackDimensions:432 pages, 7.98 × 5 × 1.12 inPublished:February 14, 2006Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385660189

ISBN - 13:9780385660181

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyed this book Found this book very interesting and well researched. Very informative and yet very entertaining at the same time.
Date published: 2017-12-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Beautifully written and very intriguing Camilla Gibb does an excellent job telling the story of a white Muslim woman by weaving her tale through the portions of her life spent living under the charged political environment of Ethiopia and those spent being uprooted to England. The amazing characterization of Lilly pulls you into her struggle of alienation and journey of self-discovery all while trying to hold onto the small portions of her own identity that have remained constant through her life. The format of the novel keeps you intrigued until the very last page as you get glimpses of her past while only knowing small bits of her present, struggling to find the same closure as Lilly. The book contains a plethora of interesting and well-written characters and really immerses you in a religion that can so easily be misunderstood. Though not what I would consider to be a love story, you do get to follow Lilly as she learns more about herself and her own identity through her falling for a doctor named Aziz and then being separated when she is forced to go to London without him. The writing and format keeps you hooked until the emotional end.
Date published: 2017-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fantastic read! I loved this book. The main character's life is one of constant upheaval, and yet she rises above the chaos and creates a productive environment that benefits others. Very inspiring!#plumrewards
Date published: 2017-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of her best books! I read this book in high school and unlike the majority of books that I read, this book was compelling. Very interesting novel with a great plot and just enough romance to keep a girl interested.
Date published: 2017-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful The novel was beautifully written and very poignant. I was really drawn in to Lilly's life and everything she experience.
Date published: 2017-04-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Tough and Lovely story Lilly gives us insight into the inner realms and feelings of those ripped from the homes and people they love and thrown into places for which they are expected to be grateful, and the deep struggle to find balance and a foothold of security while drowning in all that is unfamiliar. I loved this story for its poignancy for our current Canadian culture and the messages from Lilly's life and love that we could all do to heed...
Date published: 2017-01-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not for me This novel obviously resonates with a large group of readers and is well written and realistic, but I couldn't connect to the protagonist and had a hard time getting through the story.
Date published: 2016-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from engaging Really enjoyed the combination of a good story with an expert understanding of the social situations-writer herself being a social anthropologist-gave real authenticity to the description of the Ethiopian tragedy and the refugee experience.
Date published: 2015-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent book. Camilla Gibb has a good grasp of the human condition. Was a fabulous book and gave me a better understanding of life in Ethiopia.
Date published: 2015-04-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Surprising and Thought Provoking This book surprised me. I took part in a discussion about "Sweetness in the Belly" before i started reading it. The reviews and comments were varied, but i walked away feeling that this wouldn't be my type of book and would just frustrate me. Someone made a comment that the main character, Lilly, didn't really grow, that her character development was never pushed and that she seemed to think and feel the same throughout the book no matter what her age or circumstance. However, i felt that there was a valid reason for Lilly's lack of personal growth. She missed Aziz terribly...he was so tightly wrapped up with Lilly's identity of what it meant to be Muslim living in Ethiopia, to be devout yet at the same time open and willing to question religion and her life. I found myself respectful and envious in many ways of the discipline and structure of the religion that outlined Lilly's every day. The movement back and forth between Ethiopia and England makes it easy to follow the flow of what is happening to Lilly, why she thinks and feels the way she does, and why it takes her so long to allow herself to feel true happiness.
Date published: 2011-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favourites! This is a lovely book which is not only well written but also gave me a perspective that a westerner might never otherwise have. I never would have imagined understanding and appreciating life as an Ethiopian Muslim woman but there you go. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an adventurous spirit.
Date published: 2010-01-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Beautiful Sweetness in the Belly, left behind just that . . . a sweet feeling in my belly.
Date published: 2009-06-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Door to a Hidden World Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb is a novel about finding yourself and finding your passion for life. It is about going through terrible hardships and adversity to come out a stronger person. A whole person. Lilly the protagonist, is a white Muslim woman living in Harar, Ethiopia and London, England. The novel traces her life through various periods of her life, switching back and forth between "present day" London and Harar during Haile Selassie's reign. It is about Lilly's love for a man and her religion, what she knows and what she doesnt. As worlds collide, her white heritage sends her reeling back to a London she doesnt know, living like a refugee, while her love Aziz is left alone in Harar to deal with the reprecussions of Haile Selassie's abdication. An easy read and an enjoyable one. The novel really lets you into the inner world of a Muslim woman, something that I have never really seen before. All in all a very good novel, enjoyable and heartbreaking.
Date published: 2008-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from absolutely great This book was recommended to me a librarian and I'm so glad I took her advice. It's a really interesting story that doesn't over-simplify things but still isn't too hard to read. I used to live in Ethiopia (where story takes place) and that also makes it interesting. I can't wait to read more books by Camilla Gibb.
Date published: 2008-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great read! This book is amazing! I had a day off from work and spent the day all curled up reading it. I found it very difficult to put down and had it finished within the day!
Date published: 2008-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful I truly enjoyed reading this book. It is a book about love and faith and friendship. One of the best books I have read in a while!
Date published: 2008-01-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The politics of love... British born, Canadian raised writer Camilla Gibb's stunning new novel Sweetness in the Belly divided last month's book club. I was among those who loved it. The book tells the story of Lilly, born to hippie parents and brought up, after their death, in the city of Harar as a Muslim. Her story is told by layering her young years in a politically charged Ethiopia with her life as a nurse in London. It's a fascinating picture of a world torn apart by poverty and prejudice and by Lilly's own beliefs. It is also a love story as we wait with Lilly to learn the fate of her lover, Aziz. I know nothing of the politics of Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie. I know very little about the Muslim religion, but Gibb's beautiful prose and attention to detail (she conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia for her PhD in social anthropology) makes this book a page-turner. The characters are complex and interesting and the day to day struggles of the women, in particular, are riveting. I was both gutted and elated by book's end.
Date published: 2007-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Must Read!! Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb was a beautiful story of hope and new beginnings. Set in both London and Ethiopia, this story will grab the reader as they experience both love and loss through Lilly's eyes. This book was recommended to me and I will definitely be recommending it to others - both customers and friends alike. Excellent read!
Date published: 2007-09-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Compelling Read This is a fine tale, full of hope and dispair. We meet Lilly, a young English woman who is orphaned in North Africa and is brought up and educated by Islamic scholars. She become a Muslim and eventually travels to Harar in Ethiopia when she blends into the local society. As she becomes more and more Ethiopan she accepts here life there, falls in love and ...well I wont go into further detail. The novel in set in two different places (also London) and at different times. As her story unfolds, we begin to care a great deal about her and hope against odds that she will find happiness. This is a compellng book.
Date published: 2007-03-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Power of Belonging A wonderfully told novel about the power of belonging. A tad too academic but the reader learns much about the Ethiopia of the '70's-'90's, as well as the plight of thousands of Ethiopian refugees, including the protagonist, Lilly--a white English/Irish woman, converted to Islam.
Date published: 2007-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Captivating This book came highly recommended, and surprisingly enough it was all that people said it was. I could not put it down! At first the style put me off a bit, because Gibb jumps from one time period to the next and then back again, and yet it quickly grew on me. This story is very well written, and is different than many books I've read recently. Lilly, the main character, draws you in to her life. Her struggles are unique and intriguing. I absolutely loved the book and highly recommend it.
Date published: 2006-06-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyed This Book This was one of those books that once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down. The story and characters were well developed. The topic is heavy but the style of writing is easy follow and the author keeps you interested throughout the entire book. Definitely one I would recommend.
Date published: 2006-06-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Hidden gem Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to listen to a guest speaker in my Socio-Cultural Anthropology class at the University of Toronto. This guest speaker was Camilla Gibb. I really hated the course at that point in the year, and was trying to find something positive to take from it. I was so mesmerized by listening to Camilla Gibb that I decided to purchase her book. I wanted a chance to read word for word the story she was telling. This book is beautifully written - it touches on some difficult subjects that are pertinent to Africa, and depicts some beautiful and unusual relationships between the lead character, Lilly, and the people in her life. It is complex, different and bold. It is unlike anything I have ever read - if you are looking for a book that is different and thought-provoking, Camilla Gibb's "Sweetness in the Belly" is an excellent choice.
Date published: 2006-05-30

Read from the Book

PrologueHarar, EthiopiaThe 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 CarrollPart OneLondon, England1981–85Scar TissueOn 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.

Bookclub Guide

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 outsider?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 novel?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 their communities.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?

Editorial Reviews

One of Amazon.ca's Best Books of 2005National BestsellerWinner of the Trillium Book AwardA Scotiabank Giller Prize FinalistA 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 SunPraise 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