Summary and book reviews of In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men

By Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2007,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2008,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman’s days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father’s constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother’s increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn’t he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie?

Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand—where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father’s cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend’s father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television.

In the Country of Men is a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare. But above all, it is a debut of rare insight and literary grace.

Chapter One

I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star. And it was rising now, this star, as faithful as ever, chasing away the blessed breeze. It was almost morning.

The window in her bedroom was wide open, the glue tree outside it silent, its green shy in the early light. She hadn't fallen asleep until the sky was gray with dawn. And even then I was so rattled I couldn't leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette and...

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About This Guide

Taking us to a time and place rarely glimpsed in fiction, Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men captures life in Libya in the wake of Muammar al-Qaddafi's revolution. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy named Suleiman, we watch a family struggle for survival in a climate of deadly political suspicion. Against a backdrop of innocent childhood rituals—playing games with his best friends, learning his country's history on visits to the ruins surrounding Tripoli—Suleiman is also awakened to dangers he cannot comprehend. When his father is brutally interrogated and his best friend's father disappears, Suleiman arrives at a crossroads that will shatter his understanding of home and homelands.

...
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Reviews

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Labeled by some as the "Libyan Kite Runner", In The Country of Men does share some similarities with Khaled Hosseini's runaway bestseller in that both are about young boys growing up in countries experiencing political implosion, with the result that their boy-sized mistakes take on adult-sized consequences; but Matar's prose is leaner than Hosseini's, and his themes share more with Ian McEwan's Atonement than with The Kite Runner. Matar's writing is arrestingly evocative, blending raw emotion with tiny, seemingly incongruous details seen through the eyes of a child, details that serve to fill the adult reader, who can interpret what the child sees in the wider context, with fear as he or she picks up the traces of impending doom lurking behind the innocuous.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times - Lorraine Adams

In interviews and in his writing, he maintains a public composure. As a novelist, his self-control is impressive.

Miami Herald

A remarkably perceptive and affecting portrait of a young boy's premature political awakening.... [Matar] expertly builds an atmosphere of palpable tension, and though this novel never delves directly into politics, the menacing pall cast by political tyranny looms over the proceedings.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Graceful.... Quietly, but with the insistence of a tolling bell, Matar lays bare for Suleiman both public and private worlds of overlapping male power, role models, standards and styles. At its intimate center, the novel calibrates the boy's shifting, decreasingly innocent perspective as he himself becomes implicated by cruelty and betrayal.

The Washington Post's Book World

Though set in one of the world's most peculiar, most despotic countries, this sad, beautiful novel captures the universal tragedy of children caught in their parents' terrors.

Miami Herald

A remarkably perceptive and affecting portrait of a young boy's premature political awakening.... [Matar] expertly builds an atmosphere of palpable tension, and though this novel never delves directly into politics, the menacing pall cast by political tyranny looms over the proceedings.

Booklist - Deborah Donovan

Matar tells a gripping and shocking tale that illuminates the personal facet of a national nightmare.

Library Journal

Beautifully written...intimate, realistic, and heartbreaking scenes. Highly recommended.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Matar wrests beauty from searing dread and loss.

School Library Journal

Well written, with evocative descriptions of heat and landscape that intensify readers' experience, the story lingers long after the book is closed. Teens serious about understanding the complex nature of patriotism will find much to ponder here.

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Beyond the Book

A Short History of Libya

Libya is located on the Mediterranean coast in the North of Africa to the West of Egypt (map).  Much of the country lies within the Sahara Desert but the coastal areas have a Mediterranean climate with arable land in the plateaus.  The earliest known settlers of the area were the Berber people, known as Libyans to the Greeks.  Around the 7th century BC the maritime culture known as Phoenicians or Canaanites colonized the eastern section of the country which they called Cyrenaica; and the Greeks colonized the west,...

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