Monday, May 20, 2013

8 Heart Review: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar

Page Count: 245

Release Date: 1 January 2006 (first edition)
Publisher: Dial Press (Random House)
Source: Complimentary copy provided by TripFiction in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!)
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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.

Review


I'm normally not a fan of historical fiction, but as a world literature lover, I couldn't help but try this one. Even though it was a little difficult to get into, I am so, so glad I did.

In the Country of Men is a gripping account, from a small boy's perspective, of Gaddafi's infamous terror regime. It shimmers in the triumphs and fumes in the horrors of the the Libyan revolution of 1979, and expertly depicts Libyan culture and customs—the entire "world full of men and the greed of men"—as well. I found this a shocking, affecting read, and be forewarned: this book hits hard and will leave bruises.

There are a several difficult issues tackled in Suleiman's first-person narrative, each coated with a blasé haze of childish charm. The exterior ones among these, include gender inequality and societal persecution, but Hisham Matar dares to venture deeper as the story spins around the values of family, friendship, nationalism, and the definition of loyalty. He portrays with deliberate precision and indelicacy, the oppression of not only women, but also of humans and human rights; this is all poignant, truthful, and startlingly refreshing.

Facets of the narrator's childhood make him the most vulnerable, and yet most potent character. Most of the other characters are shallow or, as with the central themes, influenced by Suleiman's innocence and lack of awareness, but they are nevertheless lyrically and memorably described.

I'll admit this book was a bit slow for first half, but the second half blew me away. In the Country of Men is not the sort of book I'll soon forget. Hisham Matar has woven a brilliant novel on what it is to be family, what it means to grow up, and what it takes to be free, because they are all—the author claims—achievable aspirations... but only to few, in the land of men.

Pros


Raw, uncensored // Stunning literary style with both graceful and repulsive notes // Fascinating perspective of Gaddafi's Libya // Impressive stylistically, historically, and culturally // Mesmerizing and haunting // Unforgettable

Cons


Slow-moving start // Dry at times

Love


I am in love with the way Matar writes:
If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.
Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.
[In me], there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike. I see it in others, this emptiness. My expression shifts constantly, like that of a prostitute who waits in your car while you run across a busy road to buy a new pack of cigarettes for the night. When you walk back, ripping the cellophane, before she has time to see you, you catch sight of her, temporarily settled in another role as a sister or a wife or a friend. How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if only we hadn't got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us. 

Verdict


Hisham Matar's literary debut glitters in the backdrop of 1979 Tripoli and lingers in the yearning mind. Every so often you pick up a book so resonating and so captive of emotional truth, that it sends shivers down your spine and leaves an ache in your chest. In the Country of Men is one of those books Americanflag


8 hearts: An engaging read; highly recommended (x)