Africa and Europe: 'Sweetness in the Belly'
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
An English-born Muslim nurse named Lilly is the subject of writer Camilla Gibb's new novel, SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY. The book chronicles life in both London and Harar, Ethiopia.
Alan Cheuse has a review.
ALAN CHEUSE: Lilly's story itself opens in the multi-cultural London of the 1980s, after she's returned to her late parents' native England for medical training. She's working at a local clinic, where her Muslim sensibility, if not her beliefs, lead her to care deeply for the immigrants from the Maghreb who crowd her building and her life. And she's constantly searching for news of a Harari doctor with whom she was more than friends a decade before.
In counterpoint to this, we read long sequences set in monocultural Harar in the '70s, when Lilly discovers herself as a women and human being. As part of an adoptive family who keeps her at arms length, she's a forengi (ph) or despised foreigner, with white skin and odd customs, such as an aversion to female circumcision.
She takes on the role of teacher, tutoring local children in the Koran. There's drama here, some familial, some political, some personal, as Lilly becomes acclimated to Harar life and finds herself venturing with increased frequency into the sphere of the local doctor.
But there are many sequences of lovely stillness in which Gibb gives us cameos of the world of Harar.
"The sun makes its orange way east from Arabia, over a red sea, across volcanic fields and desert, and over the black hills to the cot and coffee-shrubbed land of the fertile valley that surrounds our walled city. Night depart on the heels of the hyenas. In darkness, they have feasted on the city's broken streets."
The glimpse this novel offers into the intimate lives of Muslim women and Ethiopian life and clan and national politics is sharp and moving, and it'll take you to a place so far from yourself that you may wonder from time to time if you're ever coming back.
NORRIS: The book is SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY by Camilla Gibb. Our reviewing, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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