Sweetness in the Belly
by Camilla Gibb
Novels set in Ethiopia are hardly commonly found beasts cluttering up the dusty musty shelves of bookstores (and yes new bookstores are often dusty) so Sweetness in the Belly is a novel concept so to speak.
Camilla Gibb’s main character Lilly is a White Muslim girl somewhat superficially (her early life is perfunctorily dealt with) plunked amongst the hard, dirty realities of pre-famine Ethiopia. The distant reign of Haile Selassie oversees the conflicting social/economic concerns of Oromo/Harari/Amharic ethnic groups and concomitant religious conflicts bubbling under the surface.
Muslim though Lilly is she is faced with trying to reconcile the changing nature of Muslim practice in the country from it’s embrace of saints to it’s far stricter/more literal interpretation of the Qur’an with everyday social realities such as female circumcision. Gibb deftly introduces this practice into the novel with a setup that moves from a communal social gathering to horrifying violence which to some degree instills a sense of shock in the reader in parallel to the physical shock felt by the violated young girls.
This scene illustrates one of the novels strong points. Gibb has a beautiful sense of pace with her elegiac storytelling. The novel moves like a languid dream. Love story (which could so easily have turned into a Harlequin Romance in other hands) intertwined with religion, politics, everyday life, she covers it all.
Some have commented that the novel would have been stronger if more attention had been paid to the social/economic effects of Haile Selassie’s reign and I at first agreed. Context is important but the novel on reflection seems to gain its strength from a parallel structure.
Lilly moves between worlds (Ethiopia and London) while Haile Selassie’s world is far removed from her orbit in a sense emphasizing Selassie’s own remove from the country he rules.
One criticism of the novel is that the main character’s arrival and subsequent journey within Ethiopia is somewhat contrived and requires a degree of suspension of belief at least initially which I found it hard to overcome. Once achieved however the book is so beautifully paced that it sits on the side table demanding to be resumed.
Another minor criticism is that the novels flow is interrupted by the back and forth required as Lilly narrates her life in Harar and her life post coup in London where she attempts to reconcile her past with her new reality.
These are small quibbles however with a novelist obviously in love with her characters and the country they inhabit. Reader prepare for your journey.