Thursday, June 01, 2006

Camilla Gibb's Sweetness In the Belly

Camilla Gibb’s most recent novel, Sweetness In The Belly, tells the story of Lilly. We discover her in London, England, but we quickly learn that her sense of self develops in Africa.

It is on this continent that she absorbs the culture and the religion of those around her in earnest—at first because she must and then because it becomes her own—and the reader falls headlong into her powerful tale.

The story develops on two continents. As it gently rocks back and forth between Ethiopia and London, we revisit eras marked by the consequences of corruption and the different faces of human pain. In the midst of poverty and alienation in Ethiopia, Lilly discovers beauty. In the midst of political tumult and upheaval in general, she discovers personal passion. We eventually learn the circumstances and details of her relationships.

It is a moving tale of romance. It is also a probing and profound exploration of the concept of personal identity. Whether derived from religious instruction, the product of a formal education or a matter of cultural identity (trying to gain acceptance or trying to escape), there are any number of ways through which we may—actively or passively--define ourselves.

The story isn’t dry. In the tiniest details, we glimpse the sound and the animation and the decay of living and, in this way, the author’s prose captures life: the sounds of sewing machines in the market, the light of a new day in a Muezzin’s call to prayer and the isolation of a sleeping city in the sounds of prowling hyenas. She even manages to convincingly trace an instance of human frailty to its ultimate cause in a long deterministic chain of events.

The author does something difficult with seeming ease: from the political, she extracts the personal; from culture-specific events, she extracts the general in human experience and we are forced to accept this one thing: movement in the world of government and organizations is not isolated to some dry, political arena. Rather, it stirs the individual. The effectiveness with which she conveys this point renders her appropriation of Lilly’s voice—a character with which the author seems to share little in common—beyond question.

Finally, she accomplishes all of this with an enviable sense of pace, language and the breathtaking realization that life can change in a single instant.

Published June 1, 2006

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