Lilly is born to British parents, but raised in Africa by a devout Muslim teacher, and eventually moves to Ethiopia as a teenager. When Ethiopia is torn apart by war politics, she becomes a refugee in London, and eventually turns to helping other refugees, all the while searching for the person she left behind in Africa.
I first tried to read Sweetness several years ago. I had gotten the impression that it was a plot-based, faster-paced book, so when I began to read, it bored me pretty quickly. At the time, I had been reading a lot of multicultural books, and I think I was just burned out on them a bit. Recently, though, I discovered that the audiobook version of Sweetness was read by Kate Reading, one of my favorite audiobook narrators, and it’s been quite awhile since I read anything multicultural, so I decided to give it another shot. I’m glad I did, because the book was absolutely beautiful!
Sweetness switches back and forth in time between Lilly’s experiences in 1970s Harar, Ethiopia, and her time in London from the 1970s through the early 1990s. There is nothing surprising or unique about her story – she is simply another refugee, torn away from her family and the man she intended to marry, displaced into a culture who accepts her skin color as their own, but not her religion or way of life. She lives among other immigrants and refugees, helping them, making friends among them, but her own life is on hold as she waits to learn what happened to the man she left behind.
Despite not being unique, though, her story is very compelling. It made me question a lot of things. How long do you wait, not knowing? Five years? Ten? Fifteen? And if you are not actually related to the person you are waiting for? If you’ve never been tied to him by marriage? You left him in your late teens – do you let your life just stop, stand still as you wait? What happens if, years down the road, you discover you put your life on hold, only to find out that he didn’t – that he assumed you were dead and married someone else? What if you found out he died? What if you never heard anything at all? How long do you wait in that limbo? It made me think about other situations in which a missing person disappears, maybe for years, maybe forever, and the lives that are put on hold waiting. The parents of a kidnapped child, never found. The family of a soldier missing in battle. The parents of a runaway, not knowing if their child left voluntarily or against their will, not knowing if or when they’ll return. Lives put on hold.
Then there was the religious aspect of the book. Lilly is a devout Muslim, but her religion is not “pure.” It is influenced by the cultures she was raised in, so that there is a little folklore mixed in. I loved that. I loved the peace she took from her religion and practices, especially in the countries where she lived – one that rejected her for her skin tone, the other who rejected her for her religion. There was one line that I particularly loved, and can’t quote directly, because I listened to this on audio. It basically says, though, that the jihad is not meant to be against others, against nonbelievers, but an internal struggle to rid oneself of sin. I couldn’t say if this is true or not, but I loved the idea behind it, because it underscores what I think about religion – that a person can use faith as a way to strengthen themselves and those around them, or they can use it as a weapon against others. Unfortunately, I think the latter – from the Taliban to the Westboro Baptist Church – are generally louder, and therefore create an unpleasant image of the very religions they claim to want to spread. Which is unfortunate, because so many of those religions – the core religions, not the extremist offshoot sects – have peace, love, and unity at their core.
Sweetness was a beautifully-written book, quiet and soft, character-driven, subtle. It brings up some hard issues, without ever discussing them directly. The audiobook was the perfect way for me to enjoy the novel. Kate Reading did a fantastic job, as always, with the delivery, carrying the prose in a way to bring to life the scenery and culture Camilla Gibb wrote so well. Highly recommended, both the book and the audio.