Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb

I've been reading rather slowly lately, due to the fact that I don't have any time for leisurely reading. I used to be able to finish a book in a day or two, stretched over lazy evenings spent sprawled on the floor, book splayed out in front of me.

Because of my lack of time, it's a bit miraculous for me to finish any book in less time than a week, snatching fifteen minutes here, half an hour there, and basically squeezing in reading time wherever I can. I'm loathe to give up the only time I have- time spent sleeping- for any other activity, including reading.

The fact that I finished "Sweetness in the Belly" in three days is, to me, proof that the book was well worth the time. I'm not saying that it was the best book I've ever read, but it was an engrossing book.

"Sweetness in the Belly" provoked a few false starts for me. It's been sitting on my bookshelf, forlorn, for months. I kept picking it up and re-reading the jacket, hoping that it would catch my interest. It never did, continuing to turn me off with its description about a white Muslim woman, struggling in life. I mean, really. If that doesn't sound depressing, what does??

I finally gave it a try three days ago. First of all, I hate it when there are unread books around me. Second of all, it's called "Sweetness in the Belly." How dour can it be??

It's dour. It's depressing. It's severe. It's self-flagellating.

It's a great book, wonderfully written. That doesn't mean that it's a fun book. It's certainly not easy to read.

Camilla Gibb went to live in Ethiopia while she was doing her research for this book, and I think it's very apparent (and appreciated). She describes places and people and attitudes with ease, an ease that comes naturally to someone who's spent time in those places with those people, facing those attitudes.

Her writing, to me, flows best when she's writing about love. Specifically, romantic love. When she talks about love between fellow Muslims, love between fellow countrymen, filial love, the words seem slightly stilted, the cadence slightly off. It's in her writing about the main character and the love she feels that Camilla Gibb really hooked me.

A hugely distracting factor of this book, though, was the complete lack of explanations. I don't mean explanation for the politics in Ethiopia or anything like that- I mean some sort of definition for words that Camilla Gibb tosses in, apparently thinking that I would know what 'qat' is or what 'dorro wat' might be or what sort of word 'muezzin' is.

Some of the words I picked up through context (which is actually how I even remembered the three things I listed above), but other words, which I expected to figure out at some point, I never did. It bothers me not to know what the words are (a dictionary, perhaps? Just in the back, the last two pages ... would save hours of Internet research) because I feel that I am probably missing key points that Ms. Gibb is trying to make. I think if I were to look up all the words I didn't know and then re-read this book, I might have a completely different understanding of it.

After finishing this book, I am still thinking about it, dwelling upon it. I finally figured out why that is. The book is about Lilly, an English-born girl that is raised as a nomad, traveling the world until her parents die. Then she's transported to Ethiopia, where she grows up on a strict diet of prejudice, discrimination, and the Qur'an. She becomes an avid Muslim, filled with the type of pure religious furor that zealots only dream about, and gains acceptance in the Ethiopian community by teaching children the Qur'an. When the political situation in Ethiopia escalates into violence, Lilly runs off to her homeland of England. Instead of feeling at home, she is once again an outsider, trying to figure out her place and her life.

**Spoilers! Maybe ... not too spoiling ... but if you want to read the book with fresh eyes, don't read any further!**

The only constant through most of the book is Lilly's love of Aziz. There is a wonderful paragraph in the book that I read and then immediately thought, "I need to remember this."

... I have begun to wonder if Aziz has, in some ways, always and only ever been an apparition. It is his absence that is part of me and has been for years. This is who I am, perhaps who we all are, keepers of the absent and the dead. It is the blessing and burden of being alive.

For all of the pretentiousness I feel in Ms. Gibb's writing, that one passage made me really love this book.

As a transplanted Korean, I have two feet firmly planted in the modern Los Angeles where I work and spend most of my waking hours. However, I most definitely have my heart in the land where I was born, my ideals shaped by the neo-Confucianism permanently stamped on my DNA, in my upbringing, in the way I think and feel. I am two wholes and I am also two conflicting halves, and it is a difficult but wonderful position to be in.

The confusion that Lilly goes through, traveling from England and taking a winding road to Ethiopia, made the character and the book totally real to me and very credible.

Despite the many sentences that I had to read repeatedly (Ms. Gibb does love her some crazy long sentences with all sorts of tongue-twisting words in them), despite the use of many non-English words I still don't know, despite the slight whiff of self-importance ... I liked this book.

Any book that forces me to think and to feel and to confront my own self is a good book, in my opinion.

Even the way the book ended was, to me, real.

Don't know if I'll ever this this book again, because it was a hard read the first time. If I ever find myself with some time and I need a literary character to relate to and feel sorry for and root for, I'll reach for "Sweetness in the Belly" and re-acquaint myself with Lilly.