Raised as a Roman Catholic convinced of at least one past life as a Jewish grandmother, I find myself in my old age utterly wary of institutionalized religions, repeatedly alarmed at what we human beings commit upon one another in the name of various (one-and-only) gods. In our post-9/11 era of heightened intolerance, this quote from British-born, Canadian-domiciled author Camilla Gibb‘s Sweetness struck me as especially sane: “My religion is full of color and possibility and choice; it’s a moderate interpretation … one that allows you to use whatever means allow you to feel closer to God … It’s an interpretation where … one’s personal struggle [is] to be a good Muslim, not a fight against those who are not Muslim.” Replace “Muslim” with any other religion, and it still remains a rational, caring, open-minded statement … oh, if only we could all be so accepting.
Meet Lilly, a white Muslim, “born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in the Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from nappies in Sicily and walking by the time we got to the Algarve.” The only child of “two solitary renegades who’d met at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s,” Lilly’s early life was rootless: “‘You don’t want to spoil the journey by missing what you’ve left and worrying about where you’re going,’” her parents insisted. When Lilly is orphaned at 8, the rest of her upbringing continues in a Sufi shrine “on the Moroccan edge of the Sahara,” quietly educated and nurtured under the guidance of the Qur’an and the Great Abdal.
At 16, Lilly is sent on pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where her gender does not allow her access to the intended sheikh’s home and she is instead thrust upon an impoverished, angry mother of young children. Eventually Lilly’s open teachings of the Qua’ran earn her both students and respect – for awhile – as well as the attention of a young local doctor.
By 1974 when the Derg overthrows Emperor Selassie and plunges the country into tragic violence, Lilly flees for an unfamiliar ‘home.’ With her cultural fluidity and linguistic efficiency, she works as a hospital nurse in a London hospital that serves the city’s downtrodden. She creates a family-of-sorts with Amina, a single mother – also from Harar – and her children, the youngest of whom Lilly helps delivers in an alley. Together the two women form a community organization that helps incoming refugees reunite with their families. “Our work is not as altruistic as it sounds,” Lilly admits. Amina awaits news of her missing husband; Lilly of her good Dr. Aziz.
For Gibb, Sweetness was 16 years in the making, including two years spent living in Harar while finishing her Oxford PhD in social anthropology. A university friendship with a young Ethiopian woman who arrived in Toronto as a refugee was Gibb’s initial inspiration for the novel; “this book is my attempt to understand” her friend’s experience of dislocation, of feeling “like a ghost” that first year of escape and arrival. Seamlessly moving between two decades, two countries, and multiple cultures, Gibb presents a jarring, difficult story with empathetic grace, carefully sifting through what we hang onto and what we must let go in order to do more than just survive, to somehow become whole.