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In the Country of Menby Hisham Matar
"[A] knockout — emotionally wrenching and gorgeously written. It is not primarily a political novel; it's about the relationships in one family and about a boy struggling to make sense of events, both public and private, that he has been exposed to far too soon....If In the Country of Men proves to be merely a promise of what Hisham Matar can do, London's literary lights had better watch their backs." Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, Matar's debut novel tracks the effects of Libyan strongman Khadafy's 1969 September revolution on the el-Dawani family, as seen by nine-year-old Suleiman, who narrates as an adult. Living in Tripoli 10 years after the revolution with his parents and spending lazy summer days with his best friend, Kareem, Suleiman has his world turned upside down when the secret police–like Revolutionary Committee puts the family in its sights—though Suleiman does not know it, his father has spoken against the regime and is a clandestine agitator—along with families in the neighborhood. When Kareem's father is arrested as a traitor, Suleiman's own father appears to be next. The ensuing brutality resonates beyond the bloody events themselves to a brutalizing of heart and mind for all concerned. Matar renders it brilliantly, as well as zeroing in on the regime's reign of terror itself: mock trials, televised executions, neighbors informing on friends, persecution mania in those remaining. By the end, Suleiman's father must either renounce the cause or die for it, and Suleiman faces the aftermath of conflicts (including one with Kareem) that have left no one untouched. Suleiman's bewilderment speaks volumes. Matar wrests beauty from searing dread and loss." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Behind reports of dissidents intimidated, tortured and killed by the world's repressive regimes hide the subtler, more obscure stories of their young children. They experience a world overcast by two shadows: parents trying to shield them from alarm and Orwellian governments denying that anything is amiss. Writing from his current home in London, Libyan author Hisham Matar has captured this plight... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) in his first novel, a haunting, poetic story about a 9-year-old boy struggling to comprehend what's happening to his family in the vise of Col. Moammar Gaddafi's reign of terror. 'In the Country of Men,' which was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize, includes frightening glimpses of the dictatorship's abuses and Libya's brand of Islamic puritanism, but Matar focuses primarily on the psychological damage wreaked on his young narrator. In 1979, Suleiman is an only child enjoying summer vacation in the usual ways of children everywhere: swimming, climbing trees, playing with his friends in the streets. But a deep anxiety pervades his home in Tripoli. A man is parked outside in a car 'like a giant dead moth in the sun.' His father, a successful businessman, is tense and distant. The adults who drop by sound happy until Suleiman steps out of the room; then they fall into panicked whispers. His mother grows increasingly dependent on her secret 'medicine.' A model of matronly care and concern during the day, she burdens her son at night with tales of her forced marriage at the age of 14, the sexual humiliations she endured, the dreams she relinquished. Matar writes in a voice that shifts gracefully between the adult exile looking back and the young boy experiencing these events through his limited, confused point of view. Why are they burning father's books and papers? Who is that voice breaking into the phone calls? Why has another boy's father 'vanished like a grain of salt in water'? 'I couldn't wait to be a man,' little Suleiman thinks, 'heavy with the world,' but what does it mean to become a man in a country where men are either brutal or cowed? Powerless to save his family from threats he can't begin to understand, Suleiman falls into bouts of sullenness and anger, committing acts of betrayal that immediately sting him with shame. Looking back at this 'time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men,' he realizes that his childhood left a 'lasting impression on me, one that has survived well into my adulthood, a kind of quiet panic.' 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. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] moving and graceful novel." The Independent (London)
"Matar tells a gripping and shocking tale that illuminates the personal facet of a national nightmare." Booklist
"[A] masterful debut novel....In the Country of Men is a small gem of a book that packs an emotional wallop." Denver Post
"Readers of this remarkable novel will learn a little about Libya's political history and a lot about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They will also be haunted by Suleiman, his fate and his eventual awakening to the complexities of adult relationships." Seattle Times
"[S]tunning....In the Country of Men is about the treacheries of the human heart. In this textured novel, Matar shows how well he can sing with the memory of the sword still keen." Kansas City Star
"[An] intriguing debut....A tender-hearted account, winning in its simplicity, of a childhood infected too soon by the darkness of adults." Kirkus Reviews
"Most memorable in this beautifully written book is the relationship between Suleiman and his young mother....Matar portrays their relationship in intimate, realistic, and heartbreaking scenes. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Matar is a careful, controlled writer. His restraint — the spaces and the light between his words — make reading his work a physical as well as an emotional experience." Los Angeles Times
In 1979 Libya, nine-year-old Suleiman endures his mother's increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. His father is away on business (again), and Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand in this novel that offers a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare.
About the Author
Hisham Matar was born in New York. He spent his childhood in America with his Libyan parents while his father was working for the Libyan delegation to the U.N. He has written poetry, experimented in theatre, and began writing his first novel, In The Country Of Men, in early 2000.
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