What you do to survive

In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar

I got this book as part of an event at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2006. Penguin Books had won a bidding war over it and was therefore keen to promote this talented debut author. I think perhaps the big promotional push put me off. Certainly, it wasn’t until I started to hear about Matar’s second novel, published earlier this year, that I became interested enough to pick it up.

Of course, it’s now timely because Matar is Libyan and was writing here about the early days of Qaddafi’s rule…in fictional form. Young man Suleiman looks back on the summer of 1979, when he was nine years old and became aware that his father’s disappearances were not always business trips, and his mother’s sadness was more complicated than feeling lonely when her husband was away.

Child Suleiman is a bit of a dreamer. In his head he is the romantic hero of the Arabian Nights and will grow up to be a jetsetting art dealer. In reality he finds that it is far too easy to do what he is told and then regret it later.

This is a beautiful, well told story. There were times when I was surprised by Suleiman’s actions or his reaction to other people, and I had to remind myself that this was a nine year old boy, with a simplified view of the world that is straining under the weight of all that is happening around him. He’s confused and angry and trying desperately to be the good boy he was raised to be, which isn’t easy when “good” is a relative term.

The narrative device of older Suleiman looking back allows Matar to inject a little history and hindsight into the story but this never gets heavy-handed. For a book about awful, weighty subjects (and it’s really not just in the background), this is an accessible, gripping read.

First published 2006 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2006.

UPDATE: See also the Guardian Books podcast with Hisham Matar (mostly talking about his new book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, but also touching on this one) and the World Book Club episode featuring Matar discussing this book (click on the link and scroll to September 2011).