2000 - 2007 Historical Fiction Other Prizes Recommended books

Sweetness in the Belly – Camilla Gibb

 Finalist for the 2005 Giller Prize

I hadn’t heard of this book, but during a discussion on Canadian literature Claire recommended it and kindly lent me her copy.  I’m so pleased that she brought it to my attention as it was a fantastic read.

Sweetness in the Belly is set in Ethiopia, Morocco and England. The main theme of the book is identity and what it means to be accepted in a community, but this book looks at things from a slightly different angle to other books on immigration.

The central character is Lilly, born to white British parents keen to explore the world. From birth Lilly travels the globe with them, but at the age of eight her parents are killed in Morocco, leaving Lilly to be brought up at a Sufi Shrine. This leads Lily to become a devout Muslim. Political unrest in Morocco forces her to leave the country as a teenager and so she heads for the Ethiopian holy city of Harar. She eventually finds a place for herself in this ancient walled city, but the start of Mengistu’s reign of terror leads her to return to London, a country that feels very alien to her.

It sounds as though I’ve just told you the whole plot, but we learn these facts quite quickly. The book flips forwards and backwards in time, showing us Lilly’s life in each country. It was fascinating to compare the traditions of each country and to learn a bit more about the terrible situation in 1970s Ethiopia. (I first learnt about of Mengistu’s reign of terror by reading Cutting for Stone earlier this year.)

“There is never anything about Ethiopia,” he laments as we watch the world morphing before our eyes. “It is as if it does not exist.”
“Ethiopia doesn’t matter to the West,” I say, stating the obvious. “We offer them nothing they can exploit.”
This has proved both a blessing and a curse. We can feel proud that Ethiopia resisted Europe’s colonial overtures, but then we have to accept that the country does not exist in the European imagination as anything but a starving, impoverished nation with just about the highest rates of infant mortality, the lowest average life expectancy and the lowest rates of literacy in the world. As a story of famine and refugees.

I loved Lilly’s character and was touched by the difficulties she faced. Sweetness in the Belly was easy to read, thought provoking and became gripping as it progressed.

I highly recommend this to anyone who loves epic tales of love and loss and those interested in cultural identity.

Have you read anything written by Camilla Gibb?

I loved this book and so plan to seek out as many of her books as I can.

Which ones do you recommend?



45 replies on “Sweetness in the Belly – Camilla Gibb”

I picked a copy of this up in a library sale (the library are moving so it was 5 for £1 – so much for my book buying ban!) and am now very pleased indeed.
Looking forward to reading it.

I’m delighted that you enjoyed this, Jackie! It’s a fantastic book. On the back of reading it I bought Gibb’s earlier two novels but have yet to read them (apparently they are much darker than Sweetness in the Belly); she also has a new novel that’s just out in Canada at present and it sounds brilliant (set in Vietnam; long-lost love; epic; multi-generational family saga; sounds like my kind of book!)

Gibbs and Ann Marie MacDonald alone show the strength and originality of Canadian literature, in my opinion.

Claire, I have a real soft spot for Canadian literarture – especially since my favourite author, Rohinton Mistry, is Canadian. 🙂 Thank you for introducing me to some wonderful Canadian authors. I look forward to trying many more in the future.

I’m going to ensure I keep an eye out for all Camilla Gibb books in the future. Her new one sounds especially good.

Well this is good new Jackie, as I have the audio version on my shelves (for over a year now), and I respect your opinion on books. Your review makes me want to read this one.

Thank you for introducing this one to me. I like to read books about Morocco and Africa, and this one includes London too! So tick all the checkboxes for a good read! I’ll look out for it. not sure I’ll ever get it from the library sales for 20p though. 😀

Jo, I love reading books set in Africa too. Good luck finding a copy for 20p but I assure you that it is worth paying a bit more to read this wonderful book!

I’m going to have to pick this one up, sounds interesting. I’m in the queue for her new one, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, at the library, seems that there might be some Giller buzz around this one as well.

Shannon, I dind’t realise that she had a new one until I read Claire’s comment above, but I will be keeping an eye out for reviews. I hope that you enjoy both books.

Book sounds fantastic – I’ve never actually read anything set in Morocco or Ethiopia either, and for some bizarre reason, I’ve avoided Cutting For Stone thus far.

I’ll try seeking this book out – I’d like to read more Canadian lit. I don’t think I’ve even covered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Canadian lit, so…

anothercookiecrumbles, I don’t think I’ve read anything else set in Morocco. Cutting for Stone is a chunkster so that might be the reason you’ve avoided it so far. Sweetness in the Belly is a bit shorter so might be a better book for you to start with. Either way I’m sure you’ll enjoy them 🙂

I like the premise of the character being born to white parents but living a very different life as she travels through the world and experiences different things.

Kathleen, It was great to see things from the perspective of someone with an African outlook on life, but white skin. It showed a whole new dimension to the problems of racism.

I read this book, and what I liked the most was the explanation of some of the practices of African Muslim women. There is a fight in the world to end female circumcision, but after reading this book I could better understand the fear that the African women would or might have, and why they would do this to their young girls. Being without a husband to care for them, or give them children would be the equivalent of not finding a job, or realizing their full female potential. Their mothers would not want to expose their girl to gossip or anything that would keep them from finding a husband. Sad that this tradition still continues, sad that the women would rather risk their daughter’s life than to disobey customs, but now I can see better why this tradition continues.

Carolyn, I found the details on female circumcision fascinating too. It did give me an insight into their reasons performing it, but not enough to make me think it they should be allowed to continue the ritual. It is so sad that those young girls have to endure that pain.

I also found the way in which Muslim traditions were abandoned in England thought provoking. I didn’t realise that was the case.

Hi Jackie,
Thanks so much for reading and reviewing Sweetness in the Belly. I wanted to let you know that Atlantic Books will be publishing The Beauty of Humanity Movement in the UK on March 17, 2011. With best wishes, Camilla

Camilla, Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to let me know about your new one. It sounds fantastic and I look forward to reading it as soon as it is released in the UK.

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