Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar

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

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7 Responses to Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar

  1. Vishy says:

    Nice review, Delia! Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book as much as you hoped to, but glad to know that you liked Hisham Matar’s prose. I didn’t know that he was Libyan. This book reminds me of the graphic novel ‘Exit Wounds’ by Rutu Modan, which is about a son searching for his lost father and falling in love with his father’s girlfriend. It also made me think of ‘First Love’ by Ivan Turgenev, which also has some common themes.

    I love a gloomy story, especially if it is a love story, if it is well told. If it is a gloomy story about war, I might like it. If it is a gloomy story about something like the holocaust, I may not even go near it 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      This was too gloomy, even for me, a fan of dark, mysterious novels, not to mention tragic love stories (I love Wuthering Heights)!
      ‘Exit Wounds’ seems to share similarities with Matar’s novel, only here the son was barely a teenager, and almost nothing is as it seems. The father had a double life, his two marriages sort of dubious, especially the second, the characters are (almost) all strangers who share a common past, the links between them so fragile they snap and get renewed constantly. There was a coldness I didn’t like, in spite of the overall emotional tone of the novel.
      I read a bit about “First Love”, it sounds like the kind of story I would enjoy. Thanks for mentioning it here.

  2. JoV says:

    I’m sorry you felt like you had to finish the book. Hisham Matar is my favourite author and In the Country of Men is just as good, if not better than this. I like his writing style as it is so melancholic and deeply affecting. Here’s wish for another happy read! 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi JoV,
      Have you read this book?
      I have nothing against melancholy but I think there was another factor that made me feel this way about the book: I didn’t like any of the characters, really, couldn’t feel a connection. Usually, when reading a book, I have a favorite and sort of cheer him/her on throughout the story. It wasn’t the case here, everybody seemed disconnected somehow, and just when I would feel like maybe starting to like one, they did something that threw me off and so in the end none managed to make an impression.
      The writing is clear and uncluttered, and some of the paragraphs I really liked. I wish I liked the story more. I’m glad that you did.

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