Wednesday, April 19, 2006

#31 - Sweetness In The Belly

This is who I am, perhaps who we all are, keepers of the absent and the dead. It is the blessing and the burden of being alive...None of us are orphans if everyone we've ever loved has died.
I can honestly say that Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly is unlike any book I have ever read. Not in the way she tells Lilly's story, backwards and forwards, past and present, between her time spent in Ethiopia and in London, a white Muslim in a world that constantly forces her to the outside, but in the story itself. What little I do know about Ethiopia comes from images on the news: years old pictures of starving children, Sir Bob's concert, flies landing on open eyes and the rounded, distended bellies of children.

And perhaps that's my own ignorance, I mean, of course that's my own ignorance, which is why I am moved by this book so very much. It took me into a world so different from my own that it's impossible not to think about how narrow our own lives are here. Perhaps that's not the right word, but that's how it feels, my world of comfort and complete meals, warm clothes, clean sheets, shoes.

I'm always one to tell people that suffering can't be compared. That pain is pain and people feel it equally, nothing that hurts should be discounted because someone beside you has suffered more or less than yourself. Yet, this book put my life into perspective, or maybe gave me the perspective to feel so much for the main character, Lilly, displaced more than once by her skin colour, her gender, her beliefs, her love for an adopted country and a man who went missing with the revolution.

Told with a voice keen with longing and strength of character, Lilly, a white woman, half British, half Irish, ends up an orphan in North Africa. Raised by a Muslim man, strict in religion and the teachings of the Qur'an, she makes a pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where she finds that being white and a woman excludes her from continuing her education. Banished to the home of a poor, ex-lover of the sheikh (the man she was sent to learn from), Lilly slowly finds her way in her new adopted home and eventually falls in love with a young, idealistic doctor named Aziz.

Revolution, war and religion all combine to make it impossible for the two to marry, and Lilly eventually must flee Ethiopia as Halie Selassie is deposed. She spends the next years searching for Aziz from London, where she now makes her home and her living as a nurse. As a truly displaced person, Lilly's story is both moving and addictive. Once I started this book, I couldn't put it down. Good thing my RRHB still has about a billion hours of TV to catch up on, or else he might have been perturbed at me spending hours lying in bed, imagining dry, dusty streets, damaged and broken ideals, inapprehensible suffering, and the deep-seated joy and peace in simple honest beliefs.

As bittersweet yet inspiring as strong coffee in the morning and as satisfying as a swim in the lake after a long summer day, Sweetness in the Belly truly captured my attention.

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