I was eager to read this book after the rave critical reviews, but I just could not get into it. The main reason was that although the plight of the young protagonist should inspire sympathy I did not find him very likable and therefore could not feel sympathetic. The book does offer an interesting glimpse into a culture very different from ours, but I thought that I would be more emotionally moved by this book than I was.
I thought this book was very well written and I'm very impressed with the author, Hisham Mater. The story was very sad. We were assigned to read it for our Brandeis "Voices of the Middle East" Study Group last month. The book was well received by the group and we felt it depicted what life was like in that country. I do recommend it.
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 customsthe 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 in 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 allthe author claimsachievable 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.
Rating: 8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read; highly recommended.
Source: Complimentary copy provided by TripFiction in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!).
This book is eye-opening as it shows a world filled with fear and paranoia. It is especially interesting to read all of this from a child's perspective as he tries to understand what is going on. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, and chilling.