Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

British born, Canadian raised writer Camilla Gibb’s stunning new novel Sweetness in the Belly divided my book club. I was among those who loved it. The book tells the story of Lilly, born to hippie parents and brought up, after their death, in the city of Harar as a Muslim. Her story is told by layering her young years in a politically charged Ethiopia with her life as a nurse in London. It’s a fascinating picture of a world torn apart by poverty and prejudice and by Lilly’s own beliefs. It is also a love story as we wait with Lilly to learn the fate of her lover, Aziz.

I know nothing of the politics of Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie. I know very little about the Muslim religion, but Gibb’s beautiful prose and attention to detail (she conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia for her PhD in social anthropology) makes this book a page-turner. The characters are complex and interesting and the day to day struggles of the women, in particular, are riveting. I was both gutted and elated by book’s end.

Read a review
And another
An interview with the author

MY QUESTIONS

1. Discuss Lilly’s role as an outsider and her struggle for acceptance both as a farenji in Harar and as a white Muslim in London. Who else in the novel could be considered an outsider?

2. What do the words “family” and “home” mean to Lilly? How does her view of herself as an orphan evolve over the course of the novel?

3. “Faith has accompanied me over time and geography and upheaval,” says Lilly. For her, love and Islam “have always been one.” Did Sweetness in the Belly in any way alter or broaden your understanding of Islam? Consider, for instance, the notion of jihad or holy war.

4. Sweetness in the Belly alternates between Harar, Ethiopia, in the 70s, and London, England, in the 80s and early 90s. What qualities does this crosscutting of time and place impart to the narrative?

5. In the chapter entitled “Exile,” Lilly observes that “the smell of coffee draws women together, an olfactory call throughout a neighbourhood luring women from their homes to gather…” Later in the chapter, the act of twisting a mortar over coffee beans and cardamom triggers in her a surge of nightmarish images from the Red Terror. Of the many lush sensory details in the novel – both fair and foul – which affected you the most?

6. While living in Ethiopia, Camilla Gibb witnessed a female circumcision. A doctoral student in social anthropology at the time, she says she had to “understand it in the context of the community in which it was taking place, and not judge.” When Nouria’s daughters are circumcised in Sweetness in the Belly, how does Lilly react as the only Western-born character in the scene? How did you react as a reader?

7. Based on your reading of Sweetness in the Belly, what feelings and psychological states are associated with the experience of exile? How do Amina and Yusuf, for example, cope with their respective traumas?

8. In Harar, Aziz is called a “black savage, African slave, barbarian, pagan.” In London, Lilly is called a “white fu’in Paki.” Discuss the notion of “otherness” in the novel. How do artificial divisions manifest themselves based on ethnicity, class, race, religion and gender?

9. Discuss the ways in which the female characters ensure their survival and empower themselves despite the gender divisions within their communities.

10. What does Lilly mean when she says that Aziz “unveiled” her? How does she reconcile her love for him with her love of Islam?

FOOD

Chocolate Creme Brulee

1 quart heavy cream
1/2 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
9 egg yolks
1/2 cup chocolate chips
2 tablespoons white sugar, or as needed

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Set 6 (4 ounce) ramekins on a baking sheet.

Pour cream, sugar, and vanilla into a saucepan, and place over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar, and heat until it begins to simmer, then remove from heat. Place egg yolks in a large bowl, and slowly whisk in the hot cream mixture, about 2 tablespoons at a time, until you have added approximately a cup of cream to the yolks. At this point, pour in the remaining cream, and whisk until smooth. Stir in the chocolate chips, and set aside for 5 minutes.

Stir the mixture until the chocolate is smooth and evenly distributed. Pour into ramekins, and bake in preheated oven until the center is just set, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven, and allow to cool for 45 minutes, then place into the refrigerator, and chill until cold, about 6 hours.

Place oven rack in topmost position. Turn oven to Broil.

Sprinkle the tops of each creme brulee with sugar until evenly coated, gently pour off excess sugar. Place ramekins onto a baking sheet, and place under the broiler until the sugar bubbles and turns a light caramel brown. Serve immediately.

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