Title: In the Country of Men
Author: Hisham Matar
Libya 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman lives with his parents although his father is frequently out on business trips. During his father’s absence, Suleiman witnesses his mother’s illness flare and listens to her disturbing stories pertaining to the past. One day, while his father is supposedly on a business trip, Suleiman sees him within the city. From that point, Suleiman’s neighbor gets arrested, his father disappears, and a man sits in a car outside Suleiman’s house. The family must do what they can to survive.
The writing style of this book is simplistic but it captures so much. Although we are limited to a nine-year-old’s perspective, we witness terrible things innocently. We see Suleiman come to understand the injustices in the world and him coping with witnessing his first death. Suleiman grows as a character within a short span of time.
He has to become his mother’s caretaker at times and tries to bring her out of her illness bouts. He comes to understand the injustices women face in his culture. And most of all, he has to grapple with his own evil. From abusing a homeless man to mocking his best friend, Suleiman has to reconcile his actions to himself.
There are several beautiful quotes within the novel, including some of my favorites:
“Grief loves the hollow; all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.”
“Now dusk, now a parting glance, from the sun leaning fatigued against the hills. Now, blackness.”
“Can you become a man without becoming your father?”
“She had always seemed captive, captive in her own home, continually failing to prepare herself for anything else.”
“And that was how I knew it was over. A word had been given and a word had been received, men’s words that could never be taken back or exchanged. My eyes were no longer yawning, I could focus well now. I remembered his beatings and felt my back grow taller at the realization that they had forever ended. I looked down at my knee touching his and was amazed at how able and enduring the human body is.”
“Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that’s why many feel it must be anxiously guarded.”
“Why does our country long for us so savagely? What could we possibly give her that hasn’t already been taken?”
When I first began reading this book, I realized that I knew snippets of Libyan history. If you don’t know much about the Libyan revolution before reading this book, take some time and read a little bit about it. It’ll give you better footing and more appreciation for the novel. For all the success Ghaddafi brought the country, there’s always something missing from the narrative, and this book helps fill in the gaps.
Overall, a fantastic novel that I enjoyed and learned a lot from. It’s heartbreaking and very vivid, and I think its brilliant that Matar chose a nine-year-old to tell the story.