Sweetness in the Belly / By Camilla Gibb

Doubleday Canada, 415 pp, $32.95, hardcover.

Sweetness in the Belly is one of those near-perfect fictions: a sustained flight of imagination backed up by firsthand experience, with a sympathetic but alluringly outré central character and a teeming, colourful supporting cast. That it concerns East African Muslims, both at home in Ethiopia and in exile in London, only adds timeliness to a book that's already brimming over with an irresistible plot and great social significance.

Camilla Gibb, currently being touted by the English press as a young writer to watch, knows the ex-pat's lot. Born in the U.K., she grew up in Toronto, and her inevitable sense of estrangement from home is here embodied by Lilly Abdal, the daughter of two British proto-hippies who die in a Moroccan drug deal gone wrong. With no known relatives, the orphaned child is taken in by Sufis, who feed her on a diet of the Koran and mystical self-denial. Both come in useful when, as a teenager, she finds herself destitute and friendless in Harar, a Muslim enclave in the middle of Christian Ethiopia (and the city where Gibb spent two years pursuing a degree in cultural anthropology). But neither the Koran nor her Sufi training prepared Abdal for a far more dangerous challenge: true love, which shatters her steely composure with an unexpected blast of possibility.

As is so often the case, true love is doomed. Lilly's suitor, a soulful doctor-turned-political agitator, disappears in the killing madness that swept Ethiopia after Haile Selassie's overthrow in 1974. Triply exiled-from love, from family, and from community-Lilly retreats to the country of her birth, where she recovers all three in the unlikely setting of a London low-income-housing project.

In essence, Sweetness in the Belly is a kind of picaresque romance, but one in which the adventures are more philosophical than bawdy and the tone more sad than swaggering. It's also a welcome twist on the typical coming-of-age story: there are powerful reasons for Lilly's alienation and pain, and through the strength and clarity of Gibb's writing we feel them all-along with the strangeness of exile, the scents and sounds of an unfamiliar country, and the healing balm of friendship. Readers are likely to emerge from its pages feeling bruised but hopeful, and better informed about both Islam and émigrés everywhere.