SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY by Camilla Gibb (Doubleday), 408 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Say this much about Camilla Gibb : she's not afraid to take a risk.
Her third novel veers away from the fractured family scenarios that characterized her first two novels (including Mouthing The Words), landing inside the walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, and the housing estates of London, England.
The heroine, Lilly, is a white Muslim. Brought up by wayward parents in the 50s and then orphaned before she's 10, she's adopted by Muslim friends of the family. Teenaged and bristling with religious fervour, she winds up in Harar, where slowly she's accepted despite her foreignness and begins to fall in love with local doctor Aziz.
But political upheaval changes everything, and she's forced to emigrate to London, where she connects to the Ethiopian immigrant community, while a radicalized Aziz stays to pursue his revolutionary passions.
Gibb brings both her deep powers of observation and her training as a social anthropologist to the table - and I use the word "table" both figuratively and literally. The feminism and ethnography are subtly conveyed, and the food prep, a constant for females in Muslim culture, is deliciously precise.
But what distinguishes Gibb here is her willingness to face the outrage that's bound to dog a book about a culture and religion that are not her own and that are currently very much under the critical microscope.
In writing Sweetness In The Belly, she demonstrates that rare combination of compassion and nerve.