by Linda Morra
Camilla Gibb's third novel, Sweetness in the Belly, is a haunting novel. Preceded by two other novels, Mouthing the Words (1999) and The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life (2002), Sweetness in the Belly alternates between London, England, and Harar, Ethiopia. Shifting from one locale to another, it traces the life of a white Muslim nurse, Lily, and the sense of dislocation she experiences when she is initially left in Ethiopia-and when she must subsequently leave Ethiopia.
Lily, the novel's protagonist, endures a series of traumas in each of the geographical locales to which she is consigned. Such geographical displacements are pivotal to the formation of her identity, as they also render her an anomaly wherever she lives. English-born, she is brought to Africa by her parents, and their sudden deaths result in her being reared by Muhammed Bruce-a "large English convert...who had lived in North Africa for decades" and by the Great Abdal, who teaches her the Qur'an. Both men cooperatively strive to "fill the hollow and replace the horror" of Lily's loss "with love and Islam." This initial trauma is only somewhat assuaged by her commitment to her new religion; that is, she is a practicing Muslim in part because it reassures her of her "place in the world":
"Our place in the eyes of God. The sound of communal prayer-its growling honesty, its rhythm as relentless and essential as heartbeats-moves me with its direction and makes me believe that distance can be overcome."
Lily's sense of being orphaned, her lack of family associations, is poignantly rendered by Gibb. Lily feels hopeless in a world "where borders and wars and revolutions divide and scatter us." The trauma she has experienced is figured in her attempt to draw a family tree, which evocatively resembles "a rubble-strewn field." It takes the love of her good friend, Amina, to to make Lily aware that she fails to include others because she has not realized that hers must be not "a map of blood" but "a map of love." At the heart of this novel are the protagonist's contradictory and incompatible impulses: Lily craves intimacy but she also rejects it because she has been profoundly traumatized by her series of losses.
Lily naively believes that through religion she can safely relate to others. When teaching two young boys Arabic, she reflects upon how she loves Islam because "[i]t connects us through time. ...In a fatherless world, I was a link in a chain that connected God's Prophet... with two dusty Ethiopian boys." Despite learning to be Muslim in faith and practice, she is repeatedly denied any meaningful connection by others who see only the whiteness of her skin. Clearly, Gibb is concerned with questions of identity and community in this novel-how the sense of self is both fashioned and contested by religion, geography, language, family ties, and national-or transnational-imaginings.
Caught between two worlds, Lily retreats into Islamic rituals far more rigorously than her counterparts: she becomes so well versed in the Qur'an, that she is charged with teaching local Islamic children. Still, in spite of her knowledge of the Qur'an and adherence to Islamic faith, she is regarded suspiciously-a "'farenji' who speaks Harari!," or "the white Muslim of Harar"-and is accused of merely imitating religious rituals only to gain access to and spy on the people she genuinely cares about.
Gibb thus demonstrates how someone like Lily destabilizes simplistic binaries-non-white/white, Islamic/Christian, and so forth. There are moments, however, when Lily herself feels she cannot be a perfect Muslim because she finds some local rituals barbaric-and, here, she herself further subverts these binaries. She resists rituals such as those related to female infibulation, performed at adolescence, and attributed to Islam, although the practice emerged from custom rather than from the Qur'an. She is thoroughly repelled when she witnesses the procedure performed upon Bortucan and Rahile, daughters of her friend, Nouria; when Bortucan falls ill, she indicts "the work of [the] midwife" who had the full support of "the women in the neighbourhood of Harar."
The doctor, Aziz Abdulnasser, who subsequently treats the badly mutilated child, further challenges Lily by inviting her to consider the limitations of Islam, from its local, cultural manifestations, to the fact that "paternity was everything," to the realities of the current political climate in Ethiopia. When Lily points out that the television only paraded affirmative images of the emperor, Haile Selassie, and his adoring followers, Aziz must explain the disjunction between television footage, propaganda controlled by the emperor, and the real troubles ravaging the country. Lily's attraction to Aziz and his provocative ideas arouse intense inner turmoil, and her previously unified sense of self begins to break down. His influence finally compels her to re-evaluate all that she has come to believe in:
"You strive to be a very good Muslim. But then you meet a man who says it is possible to have a much more liberal interpretation-to have the occasional drink, to be alone with a girl. And you are that girl. ... And you find yourself compromising everything you thought you believed in to be here with him."
It is moving to witness how Lily, who initially resists intimacy because she is afraid of losing someone she learns to care about, finally opens herself up to emotion. Gibb's narrative is remarkable at this moment not merely because she convincingly demonstrates Lily's transformation, but also because she reveals the precise nature of Lily's connection to Islam-as an escape from the more disturbing aspects of life and the larger world.
Yet, even before she can fully appreciate the nature of Aziz's remarks, she is obliged to flee Ethiopia-without Aziz-because of the civil chaos for which Ethiopia is headed. Lily's return to London is far from celebratory; instead, she feels only the agony of a new loss in leaving Aziz behind. Once again she perceives herself as an exile and refuses human intimacy, until she meets Amina, an Ethiopian refugee whose baby Lily helps deliver. Staying in Amina's flat until she gains sufficient strength, Lily derives a sense of belonging to a family and "the life [she] left behind." She reflects: "For the first time in years, I felt part of something. For the first time in years, I felt happy."
Yet Lily's life seems to be suspended as she continues to wait for Aziz to follow her to London: the "sweetness in the belly" to which the novel's title refers is in part a reference to those memories of Aziz that Lily preserves. However, Lily also relies on these memories, again, to shield herself from forming deep attachments to others around her. "Home" and "identity" for Lily, are, for this reason, continuously being deferred-and, as Gibb makes so compellingly clear, they almost invariably elude anyone who has endured such trauma.