Hisham Matar's first novel, In the Country of Men was first published back in 2006. Earlier this year however I was told by someone whose opinions I generally pay attention to, that it was exceptionally well done, moving and truthful and sure enough, when I checked out the reviews on Amazon, it has been highly praised. It won many awards, including being shortlisted for the Booker that year as well as the Guardian First Book Award.
By choosing to narrate his story in the voice of a nine-year old boy however, Matar leaves an awful lot on the cutting room floor. Much the same technique was employed by Stephen Kelman in his novel, Pigeon English and I always felt the tangential voice, if I can put it that way, diverged too much from the material. It’s a writers choice, of course; show not tell. Infer rather than explain. It is a first novel and one can’t be too critical of first novels but there just aren’t enough characters. He must have deliberately structured the book that way but by not developing the characters of the neighbours for example, or Baba's real business dealings, he has to invent unlikely scenes; the fire; the near-drowning; Moosa and his melting tyres and so on.
I tend these days to avoid books or films [like 12 Years a Slave ] which deal with mans inhumanity to man and I found this a tough read, even though as I say he comes at his subject obliquely. What would be better, a full on narrative of torture and imprisonment under a dictator and lunatic? No, you need to place real people in the situation to comprehend the horror but the voice of a nine year old just doesn't get to grips with it. Maybe if Matar, the adult had told the story straight, looking backwards it would have been better. We could still have heard his Mama's tale, still got a sense of terror. More sense of terror, actually.
It's not an entirely satisfying read. Rather like Hannah Kent [see Book Review 1], he hasn’t got the range for this and in the end I found it quite difficult to sympathise with any of them, The constant repetition of the parents' weaknesses for example, became wearisome and eventually I became disengaged.
The end is very well handled but in the final analysis, it felt like a Guardian First Book Award winner.