four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
By: 
Hisham Matar
user_rating: 
0

A-In the Country of MenIn the summer of 1979 in Tripoli, nine-year-old Suleiman witnesses his best friend’s father being beaten and taken away by Muammar Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Army. Suleiman’s mother, terrified that her own dissident husband will suffer the same fate, spends the many nights he is away on "business" trips assuaging her fear with black market vodka she clandestinely procures from the town baker. Fueled by her "medicine," she regales Suleiman with stories of being forced into an arranged marriage with his father—stories difficult for a child to hear. But when Suleiman’s father fails to return from a trip, his mother must try to protect her son and save her husband.
Dial. 246 pages. $22. ISBN: 0385340427

Times [UK] 5 of 5 Stars
"In Hisham Matar’s extraordinary first novel, [the bildungsroman] becomes again what it was in David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, the universal cry of an innocent victim of institutional sadism. … In the Country of Men has been hailed internationally as one of the most brilliant literary debuts of recent years." Celia Brayfield

Sunday Telegraph [UK] 4.5 of 5 Stars
"There is great honesty and unsentimentality in this portrayal of a boy at emotional breaking-point. … The burden of his mother’s agony, and his desire somehow to save her, causes Suleiman physical pain; his love for her, which comes close at times to hate, is the strongest theme of an exceptional book." Katie Owen

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] knockout—emotionally wrenching and gorgeously written. … The too-hasty coda is the only weak part of the novel." Yvonne Zipp

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"In limpid prose, Matar captures an ordinary, sometimes craven boy caught up in a political nightmare, and the poignant grown-up nostalgia for the certainties and security of a childhood cut abruptly short." Jennifer Reese

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Sunday Times [UK] 4 of 5 Stars
"With its quivering ambiguities and meticulous delineation of childhood’s disastrously misjudged attempts to decode the adult world, Matar’s novel shares themes with Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Michael Frayn’s Spies, and can hold its head high in such singular company." Trevor Lewis

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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

Critical Summary

Short-listed for both the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, Hisham Matar’s novel, widely published, raises comparisons to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2003). Critics agree that Matar’s poetic, visual prose reflects a skill and maturity often lacking in first novels. Of the two points of view which Matar employs, the perspective of the young child narrator is effective and at times even chilling, as the baffled and terrorized Suleiman attempts to unravel the complexities of the adult world and the brutality of Libyan politics. Certainly Matar, who left Libya at age nine and whose father was also a political dissident, shares characteristics with his protagonist. The only flaw? A relatively weak conclusion.