Nuri-el Alfi is a teenage boy living with his father after his mother passes away. On a holiday to the Magda Marina beach in Egypt, Alexandria, he meets and falls in love with Mona, a 26 year old woman who later will marry his father. Then one day his father disappears and an avalanche of questions seems to overwhelm Nuri. Where is his father, who took him, and most importantly, is he still alive?
The action takes place in Egypt, Switzerland and England. The small number of characters make the novel easy to follow – the enigmatic father, whose secretive life style is revealed in small doses but never in its entirety, the furtive glimpses of his first wife, Nuri’s mother, provided here and there around the novel, her unexplained death, and the role of Naima who is not just a housekeeper, all seem to come together towards the end.
A feeling of absence and longing pervades every page, the disappearance of the father transforming the son into an emotionally crippled young man living in the past, trying to cling to the memory of his father by smoking the same cigarettes, wearing the clothes he left behind, looking at photographs. Smells, memories, gestures, become ties that bind Nuri to a brief past he shared with his father and he is reluctant to let them go.
I found the novel somehow disjointed; halfway through the story I got frustrated with the bits and pieces that didn’t fit and others that didn’t make sense – too many questions and so much mystery. Some of those questions got answered in the end – just enough so that I wasn’t left with a total feeling of incompleteness. I was intrigued and I did a little research on the author, only to discover that his own father, who was involved in politics, had been abducted, his whereabouts known only years later.
Hisham Matar is probably the first Libyan author whose work I have read. It is very likely that I never would have picked up this novel on my own, but a book club I recently joined chose this as the book-of-the-month and so I gave it a try. I have mixed feelings about it – the story did not appeal to me, too gloomy and hopeless, but the occasional sparkle of the language made reading it bearable; this one paragraph about Nuri’s mother I particularly liked:
“Her hands, the pale thin fingers that never seemed to match her strength, would be frozen twigs. She would tuck them between my knees or, if I were lying on my back, slide them behind my lower back, the place that is still hers.”
And another one:
“The world had to be sliced into hours to fill, otherwise you could go mad with loneliness.”
My review feels incomplete, more like a jumble of ideas glued together but that’s ok – it took me a while to reach the final page and I had days when a sort of dread was creeping on me, knowing that I had to finish it because I hate giving up on a book, especially one that is not even that long. At just under 250 pages, it should have been a quick read. Alas, it wasn’t. Or maybe I just needed something more cheerful.
And that brought a question to mind: how do you feel about gloomy stories? Do you enjoy these kinds of books or stay away from them? Or perhaps the degree of sadness doesn’t matter as long as the author keeps the story interesting?
*Read in April, 2012
You can also read Athira’s review here