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
The plot centers on nine-year-old Suleiman who struggles to cope with his enigmatic father's increasing absences and his mother's frequent "illnesses" for which she takes "medicine" sold to her by the baker in brown paper bags. Under the effect of alcohol, 24-year-old Najwa pours out her frustration as a woman in a "country of men" on the son she never wanted (but now dotes on when sober), telling him about her hasty marriage to a man twice her age (because she was seen holding hands with a boy) and her fears that the anti-state activities of her husband put not just him but his whole family in danger.
In the morning, when she's forgotten most of what she said and refuses to discuss what she remembers, Suleiman is left with his burden of half-understood knowledge and a permanent sense of 'quiet panic', still retained by the adult narrator looking back on his childhood, desperately loving his mother and physically pained by his desire to save her. Outside of Suleiman's home, life is no less uncertain. He witnesses his best friend's father being taken away by security forces and hung on national TV; and the games that the neighborhood boys play become darker and more dangerous as events in Libya become more repressed and violent and the menacing shadow of Colonel Qadaffi ("the Guide") and his all-seeing security network take over the country.
In The Country of Men combines a hard-hitting political novel with a tender story of love and forgiveness which opens the eyes of those who read it to the cruelty of Qaddafi's long and still ongoing rule of Libya. A reminder worth noting at a time when the leaders of the western world are so eager to wipe Libya's slate clean that in the space of less than two years Libya's designation as a a state sponsor of terrorism has been lifted and the country has been elected to a seat (albeit non-permanent) on the UN's Security Council.
Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York City where his
father, Jaballa Matar, worked for the Libyan delegation to the
United Nations. When Hisham was three years old, his family
returned to Libya to live in the capital city of Tripoli, where
he spent his early childhood, until political persecution forced
his mother to flee with her children. They first went to
Kenya and then to Egypt, where they settled in Cairo.
Hisham and his brother, Ziad, attended a school with 70 pupils
per classroom (the only school they could afford) and were badly
bullied. Later, Hisham's father managed to get out of Libya and
join them in Cairo where he began his political work in earnest
- speaking out against the Libyan regime and mobilizing the
various factions of the exiled Libyan resistance to unite in
order to overthrow Qaddafi.
In 1986, Hisham moved to London, England where he received a degree in architecture. In 1990, while he and his brother were both in London, their father was taken away by the Egyptian secret police. The family heard nothing until 1996 when they received two smuggled letters in Jaballa's hand written a year earlier, and a tape recording stating that he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police and handed over to the Libyan regime where he was imprisoned in the notorious Abu-Salim prison in Tripoli. Since then, nobody has heard from him.
Hisham Matar's first novel, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for a number of literary prizes including the 2006 Man Booker Prize. It won the 2007 Commonwealth First Book Award for Europe and South Asia, the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the Italian Premio Vallombrosa Gregor von Rezzori, the Italian Premio Internazionale Flaiano (Sezione Letteratura) and the inaugural Arab American National Museum Book Award. To date, In the Country of Men has been translated into 22 languages. Hisham Matar lives in London where he is working on another novel set in Cairo and London. He is married to American-born photographer Diana Matar.
This review is from the February 21, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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