Trying to catch up with notes on books recently read and still falling behind!
I finished (of course, since I was interviewing her!) Camilla Gibb's third and most recent novel Sweetness in the Belly, and liked it best of all of them.
Sweetness is a story of Lilly, a white Muslim woman, who is forced to rebuild her life as a nurse in Thatcher's Britain after fleeing from Ethiopia, in the process becoming separated from her lover.
Concerned to help the Ethiopian refugee community, she spends her weekends as a volunteer for an organization which seeks to bring exiled families together, and hopes to find news of Aziz.
Alternate chapters tell the story of Lilly's years in Ethiopia, a decade earlier. She is the child of hippy parents who are every bit as irresponsible as the parents in Gibbs' earlier novels. They travel in Morocco and Lilly is left at the shrine of a Sufi saint with an imam called the Great Abdul, while they return to the city and are murdered - probably selling heroin in a back alley. Lilly finds peace in her soul through prayer and learning to recite the Qu'ran.
She makes a pilgrimage to the walled city of Harar in Ethiopia with Hussein (another adoptee of the imam) when unrest breaks out. Lilly goes to live with an impoverished Ethiopian family and gradually learns the ways of the people she has come to live amongst. She falls in love with an idealistic young doctor, Aziz whom she is forced to leave behind when political upheavals make it dangerous for her to stay in the country.
This brief summary doesn't do this carefully researched and beautifully written novel justice. I knew so little about Ethiopia, hadn't even heard of Harar, and now I feel that I've spent some time there - the setting is so beautifully invoked and sensuous. There's a real compassion and respect in Gibbs depiction of the Ethiopian people and their way of life, and the plight of refugees in London.
Would I recommend it? Very strongly.