Sunday, 3 December 2017

Book club highlights on a clear, mild morning...

I have a delicious Date Bar from City Café and a steaming cup of steeped chai tea on the table in front of me, and of course a copy of the book we discussed at yesterday’s meeting, Sweetness in the Belly by Canadian author Camilla Gibb.

This bestselling 2007 novel is set in Ethiopia in the 1970s and England in the 1980s and early 1990s, and tells the story of one woman’s attempts to find peace and a sense of belonging.  The main character, Lilly, is British-born, and spent her very early years there, but her nomadic parents uprooted their family and traveled around the world, ending up in Ethiopia.  They pass away while Lilly is still quite young, and she is taken in and raised as a devout Muslim by the Great Abdal, a disciple of a great Islamic saint.  As a young woman, she spends many years in the ancient walled city of Harar, where she immerses herself in Ethiopian culture and Muslim traditions.  It is here that she meets the handsome Dr Aziz and falls in love, but this love calls into question not only her faith, but her entire way of life.  There is also great political unrest within the walled city and within the country as a whole, and everyone must do whatever is necessary to protect themselves and those they love.  Fast-forward  fifteen years, and Lilly is a nurse at one of London’s hospitals, a white Muslim woman who is doing her best to immerse herself in the Ethiopian culture in this British city where refugees struggle to make their way in this new reality while holding onto their traditions and beliefs, and also trying to reconnect with relatives who have disappeared during the revolution.  How will Lilly reconcile her faith with the reality of the conditions she sees all around her?  OK, this was not an easy read, not a Christmas- or winter-themed book, in fact, not at all the type of book I usually choose for us to read at end of the year, and I’m not sure why I put this one on the list.  When I started reading it, I groaned inwardly at the heaviness of the subject matter, sensing that my book club members would not appreciate another long-ish, heavy, probably-depressing book.  But as I read further, I was surprised at how much I anticipated moving forward in Lilly’s story, how beautifully Gibb wrote, and how quickly I read her words.  I felt that I learned so much about Ethiopian culture, Islamic faith, and the experiences and trials refugees face every day.  While this book was written ten years ago, I think it's still worthwhile to read today since we have so many refugees entering our country even now, and while they may be from other countries, I imagine their experiences are much the same.  I was very happy to have read this bestselling novel by Gibb, who based the story on her own personal observations and experiences during the time she spent in Harar as a young woman while conducting research for her thesis.  My book club members did not unanimously enjoy the book - well, “enjoy” isn’t really the right word.  I guess I should say that they were not unanimously as happy to have read it as I was, although they didn’t dislike it either.  One member said she preferred the sections set in Ethiopia more than the ones set in London, that the storyline in the London sections got tiresome after a while.  Interestingly, I really enjoyed reading these London sections because I felt that they seemed more hopeful than the parts set in Harar.  We discussed female circumcision, obviously not an uplifting topic but one that is important to acknowledge and learn about.  We discussed Lilly’s lack of belonging, the difficulties she faced in both countries because she didn’t really fit into either one.  We discussed the sense of family and community that existed in Ethiopia, that everyone takes care of everyone else, and one member commented that this still happens with the refugee communities here, that they see one another as part of a bigger family, and what challenges this may cause as it clashes with our own culture, beliefs and laws.  We also discussed the ways that political unrest can affect everyone and cause significant changes to one's traditions and way of life, something that we just don't think about here in our own insulated country. I think overall it was a successful choice for our group, just maybe not the best time of year, but I would definitely recommend this book for any book club, as it is filled with great discussion mpments.  For me, the best part about this book was the amazing writing.  When she writes about Dr Aziz, she says:  “For all his self-assurance it was such a humble smile, with a hint of sadness around the edges:  it was a smile to cup in one’s hands.”  And later:  “If she knew that I had kissed Aziz.  That I craved being in the dark with this man, that I daydreamed him into the pauses between sentences.” What brilliant expressions...

That’s all for today.  I see the sun is peeking out, so I’m heading out to enjoy the afternoon before I settle in to finish reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my students' book club meeting on Wednesday.  

Bye for now…
Julie

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