Hisham Matar’s background has a particular resonance at the moment, with the momentous and violent events taking place in Libya. His father was a political dissident opposed the Gaddafi regime, and the family were forced to flee their home and went to live in Egypt. It was from Cairo that his father was abducted, never to be seen again by Matar, although he was reported to be imprisoned in a notorious Libyan jail.
And his latest novel `Anatomy of a Disappearance’ is a moving piece of writing that draws heavily on this personal experience of loss. It is a relatively short book, at less than 250 pages, but is densely packed with emotion, desire, and desperation. It is beautifully written as it explores the relationship between Nuri, a young boy, his father Kamal, and new girlfriend Mona. It is fourteen year old Nuri who spots Mona first, by a hotel pool whilst on holiday, and he gallantly and confidently helps her to take a thorn out of her foot. She is much younger than Kamal, but nevertheless becomes his partner, but Nuri cannot repress the strong feelings that he had and continues to have for her, with inevitable consequences.
His wealthy and privileged upbringing, despite the loss of his beloved mother, is the backdrop to this tale, played out surrounded by other strong female characters like his long devoted servant Naima. He is sent away to an English boarding school at Mona’s insistence, and from here has to suffer the wrench of his father’s disappearance. Kamal’s political views and actions are not clearly spelt out, but the inference about them leading to his loss of liberty is made clear.
I enjoyed reading this book. At first I thought I was going to get bored with so much adolescent angst, but the story soon takes off in some very unexpected directions. The writing is beautiful throughout – sparse, elegant prose which demonstrates Matar’s ability to exercise restraint where it is required, levaing the reader to fill in the gaps. Reading Anatomy of a Disappearance is a joint-effort, the words generating an inner dialogue with readers as they reflect on the occasionally poetic turn of phrase.
Hisham Matar is well-qualified to write this book, born in America of Libyan parents he spent his childhood in Libya and Egypt, but took his degree in architecture in London. As the book moves around from one location to another it is quite clear that this is normal territory to this cosmopolitan writer.