Suras, sutures, sun and sweetness

Sweetness in the belly

Camilla Gibb
Doubleday Canada
415 pages, $32.95

On a wet February night in Thatcher’s London, a white Muslim nurse attends a back-alley birth of an Ethiopian refugee with only a towel, a razor blade, and a bottle of water. And so we meet Lilly, the first-person narrator of Camilla Gibb’s third novel, whose strong, sad voice carries us through Sweetness in the belly, a story that spans decades and continents to spotlight marginalized lives.

Though Gibb’s third novel represents her broadest canvas to date, a focus on the human drama of loneliness and dispossession has not shifted. Gibb’s main characters tend to house emotional estrangement, and Lilly is no exception. Abandoned at a Sufi shrine in Morocco by hippie parents, she cleaves to Islam to fill the void. “I was not always Muslim, but once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in me became still.”

Lilly wields her adopted religion like a shield to hold all humanity at a distance from herself, and it serves her well: it allows her to weather the loss of her religious home, separation from an almost-brother who lived there with her, and subsequent life in abject poverty in Ethiopia. Islam even allows small joy as she teaches the Qu’ran in her village madrasa and comes to know the children who attend. It is the perfect, unflinching constant in her life, that which cannot be lost or marred by the vagaries of human existence. But in spite of the protection Islam offers, her austere life choices and the dictates of the religion rob her of the messy, delirious rapture of physical love and companionship. When she decides to loosen the bonds to find that “sweetness in the belly,” the rolling horror of the Ethiopian famine ensures that she will experience loss again and once more tighten her hold on Islam for solace. In Lilly, Gibb paints a sympathetic, astute portrait of religious devotion.

Though Gibb peppers the story with Ethiopian and Muslim vocabulary, the plain, strong narrative style is a faithful mirror of Lilly’s ascetic philosophy. Lilly is alive and breathing on the page; her voice still wends its way through one’s consciousness several months after reading. Gibb conjures a rich array of sights and scents around Lilly, inerja bread and thin stew made with dirty water, dust of the hut floor, the curious tang of qat leaves. When Lilly witnesses female circumcision, an accepted rite of passage in Northern Africa, the scene evokes nausea enough to last several days; the reaction is visceral again as characters one comes to care about become casualties of the political unrest leading to the Ethiopian famine.

Whether or not a story like this carries a poignancy of its own because of events of recent years, the finesse required to carry a fiction that deals, in equal measures, with religious devotion, political tyranny and a quest for belonging is considerable. In Gibb’s capable hands, Sweetness in the Belly is not only relevant but also elegant and haunting. Sweet indeed.