Back in 2006, the first year I started writing dovegreyreader, and the year I dreamt up the whole shennanigans that has become the Bookerthon around the blogosphere, I read my first Booker longlist and proceeded to write about each book on here. Those were the days of twenty or more books on an unwieldy list and it was definitely a torture of my own invention.
I'm almost embarrassed to add the link to Bookerthon 2006 but it was a pleasant reminder of some really great reads that year...The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson, Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn (and surely he will be there again this year) The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, The Perfect Man by Naeem Murr, Kate Grenville's The Secret River and my own favourite Carry Me Down by M.J Hyland.
Typically the winner was the one book I hadn't read, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai but it was also the year that Libyan author, Hisham Matar's debut novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted. Even googling it on my own blog drew a blank until I remembered that this was also in the days when Booker reading meant library reservations and the book had been recalled when I was only half way through, so I have nothing to show for it bar a rather presumptious comment about a book that went on to win a fistful of prizes...
“We all seem to be agreed on The Country of Men by Hisham Matar, that was the half read one here and then the library called it back so I haven't reviewed it, not a winner for anyone but a choice for more than one of the big Lit Eds apparently. (N.B. that could be significant)”
Memo to self at the time, never comment on a half-read book.
Revised Man Booker submission rules this year seem to suggest that previous short-listing, no matter how long ago, guarantees entry so I am assuming that Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, may be a much-talked about book. So when a proof copy arrived from Penguin I idly picked it up for a quick first twenty pages and didn’t shift until I’d finished it several hours later. Then I turned back to the beginning and read the first half again, and I can’t wait to hear what the critics make of this one because for me it felt flawless.
Bookish perfection means many different things for me these days, but one is the book successfully written through the eyes of a child, and at fourteen years old Nuri is on the cusp of adolescence but still very much that child as his older self reflects on this tumultuous period of his life when, some time after his mother's death, his father takes him to an Egyptian holiday resort. It is here that Nuri falls in love with a woman wearing 'an outrageously bright yellow swimsuit' though in fact it is Nuri's father who subsequently marries Mona, a much younger woman, and for reasons that become apparent later in the novel. I am giving nothing away by revealing that Nuri's father soon mysteriously 'disappears' without trace because Hisham Matar reveals all this by page four.
What follows seems to be an incredibly prescient and politically relevant book given the tumultuous times in process in the Middle East right now, and also given that I since learn that Hisham Matar's own father, a leading Libyan dissident, was also abducted by the Egyptian secret service in 1990 and handed over to Libya, since when only two letters have been received from him in prison and his whereabouts remain unknown.
'There are times when my father's absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.'
This is the opening line of the book, the older Nuri bearing the weight of the younger Nuri, and in that knowledge it's almost impossible to seperate the two lives, for Nuri I couldn't help but read Hisham,
There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places...'
and perhaps I have read this book as an essential element of Hisham Matar's own personal journey, because it is a brilliant exploration of a young adolescent's coping strategies in the face of deep love and profound and excruciatingly painful loss.
The impact for Nuri of the loss of both parents is clearly devastating, but Anatomy of a Disappearance, with its title hinting at a dissection down to the very bones and sinews of this adolescent sadness, is a novel conveyed in the first person narrative. Thus reader awareness of the impact often precedes any overt display of grief in the book... any hints at the effects of that grief are subtle and blended, mediated through the consciousness of a boy trying desperately to become a man. When they slip through his guard I found them simple but deeply moving,
'more than anything else I wanted to be expected, waited for, welcomed.'
There are some interesting twists in the book which, could I reveal them, would offer a great deal more for me to write about so I am omitting a great deal of detail about the events of Nuri's life to arrive at the point where, eventually older and released from the constraints of being parented, he becomes a shaper of his own destiny but with that unerring eye that a child has for observation along the way. Some of the fine details are exquisitely placed, those little extras that create something much bigger, and they abound in this book; meld those together with an opening paragraph that somehow encapsulates Hisham Matar's purpose with his novel and I feel I have read something incredibly worthwhile.
Is it possible to say 'worthwile' without making a book sound 'worthy' or 'good for you' ?
I don't mean to suggest that at all but it seems the only way to convey that precious and privileged, long and undisturbed evening of reading that I spent in Nuri's and perhaps Hisham Matar's company.
Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.'