Lilly, born of English/Irish parents in the late fifties, lives a nomadic life in Europe and North Africa until her shiftless parents are murdered during a drug deal gone wrong. Orphaned at the age of eight, she has neither attended school nor had any place outside a hotel room or hostel to call home. She is offered shelter at an Islamic shrine in Tangier, Morocco, and is raised by a Sufi scholar. As a teenager, she makes a pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia to pay homage to the Sufi saint of the Moroccan shrine that has become her home. She is compelled to remain in Harar and grows into young adulthood in this chaotic, rough, vibrant city. Although her status as a Farenji – foreigner – keeps her outside the circle of acceptance, she does find her place as a teacher of the Qu’ran to neighborhood children.
In late 1974, Ethiopia’s self-appointed Emperor, Haile Selassie, is deposed and dies while in detention in 1975. Ethiopia tumbles into civil war and Lilly is forced to flee to Great Britain, the country that gave her a name, fair skin, and light eyes but has had nothing to do with shaping her heart and her intellect. She settles in the slum projects of London, a third-world United Nations of refugees and immigrants. She become a nurse at an inner-city hospital and runs a small office that assists Ethiopian refugees in tracking down their missing loved ones.
Camilla Gibb skillfully captures the disorienting and liberating state of limbo that defines Lilly’s motivations and her personality. She fights fiercely to adapt to life in Ethiopia, to force the Hararis to see past the color of her skin and accept her as a devout Muslim and an African woman. In London, she is all sharp angles and awkward speech as she resists acclimating to Europe’s cold efficiency and secular values. Like many expatriates who melt into life in a “foreign” country, she is more African, more Muslim, more Ethiopian than those whose blood is rich with the multitude of ethnicities that swirl in that vast continent.
There is a frustrating distance to Lilly as she relates her story. Her narrative shifts back and forth between the present- Thatcher’s London- to 1970’s Ethiopia. You never feel as if you really get to the heart of her- she holds the reader at a careful reach, as she struggles to maintain a strong and detached façade.
In reality, Lilly is depressed and lost. She waits years for word of the man with whom she fell in love in Harar, her heart closed to the real possibilities of companionship in front of her. She watches with disappointment and disdain as her best friend Amina, a fellow Ethiopian refugee, adapts to and embraces Western ways. Amina raises her children as multicultural citizens, allowing them to stray from Islamic traditions.
Lilly’s detachment troubled me, for it seemed that the limits of Lilly’s development and character were more a function of Ms. Gibb’s voice and style and plot choices. There was so much that didn’t make sense in the story of Lilly’s life- like why no one questioned the presence of a little white girl wandering alone through Tangier’s medinas or searched for her after her parents’ deaths? There were shadowy characters whose presence trailed away without explanation or purpose. I never really understood why Lilly remained in Harar, living in poverty with a family to whom she had no apparent connection. She had no formal education, so how did she become a nurse? As devout a Muslim as she appeared to be, as African as she became, she seemed to slide into the role of single, independent, modern white woman once in London, even though she had zero experience with that life. As vivid a picture of Lilly’s adolescence in Harar and young adulthood in London as Ms. Gibb created, these were significant details that went begging.
It seemed clear that Lilly’s status as a Farenji would prevent her from having the life in Ethiopia she so desperately craved. She would likely be denied marriage to the man she loved and she had no future as a single woman, completely dependent on her adopted family and the shaky foundation of her Qu’ranic tutorials. But these concerns went unaddressed as Lilly is forced to flee to Europe before her adult future takes shape.
As a teacher of the Qu’ran, Lilly was a conduit to rote memorization. She led the children as they recited their holy book, chapter by chapter. She offered no interpretation, only a guide when a pupil stumbled over a verse. Lilly embraces Islam in the same literal way- her faith provides a set of rules for behavior, a large measure of comfort and cultural identity, but I couldn’t get a sense of Lilly’s core beliefs.
And perhaps that is the point- Lilly is a soul adrift between two cultures, belonging to neither but being of both. Her voice is detached because she has yet to alight solidly in her own life. Ms. Gibb paints this story in shades of gray and brown, the colors of loneliness and poverty. Lilly is released, finally, at the end and a warmth infuses the final pages, giving a sense of hope and future.