When Nuri was 14, his father disappeared. Looking back nearly 40 years later, he still doesn't know why. This is a story of coming of age, of different types of love and desire, of loss and of the difficulty of moving on when you don't know what has happened. It is also a story of deceptions and lies.
Matar was brought up in Tripoli and Cairo by his Libyan parents - his own father disappeared and was imprisoned in 1990, and like Nuri, he doesn't know if his father is alive or dead. His novel clearly draws on autobiographical elements but there are big differences too, and I think readers should not assume this novel to be a memoir.
Anatomy of a Disappearance is Hisham Matar's second novel, following on from In the Country of Men which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. I read both novels at a time of increased interest here in the politics of North Africa and the Middle East - where his first book was more overtly political, it focused on the impact of politics on personal and family life. This novel is much more about the personal impact of what has happened, and of complex and changing relationships. Ths main story is set in the early 1970s.
Readers looking to literature for more about Libya or surrounding countries will be disappointed by this novel, as it is not set there. I would recommend this novel for other reasons though, not least the quality of writing, as there is little about the lives of ordinary working and middle class people in that part of the world. Nuri's father is a very wealthy man from an aristocratic background, originally from a country which is never named, but references suggest it was Iraq. Many of the significant scenes take place in luxurious hotels, many of them in Europe, and later Nuri is sent to an English boarding school.
Nuri is preoccupied throughout the novel with the women in his father's life (and his own). His mother died when he was 10, and when he learns of his father's disappearance he is having breakfast with his stepmother Mona in a hotel near Geneva. They originally met her in a hotel too. Nuri considers he saw her first, and is terribly jealous of the relationship between her and his father. Nuri's attraction to Mona and his jealousy are fuelled by her apparent flirtation with him. Then they turn to each other in the crisis of the disappearance, in one of the most disturbing parts of the story, but are soon divided as Nuri discovers more of his father's secrets.
I normally have a preference for women's writing and for books with strong female characters presented on their own terms, not through the eyes of men, and I found this aspect of the novel troubling and thought provoking on several levels. Of course, all the female characters are presented in the way that Nuri remembers them when he was himself a very young boy. We never get a full explanation of Mona as a fully rounded character in her own right. However, this is Nuri's story of his transition from childhood and of his father's disappearance, and I don't think it would be believable if his attitude towards her was different.
Anatomy of a Disappearance is rather different in many ways from my normal reading, and I found it took me out of my comfort zone. It is quite a short book packed with the confused emotions of its adolescent character. It is beautifully written. Much that happens is never fully explained - every turn of events seems to throw up a whole host of questions for Nuri and the reader, many of which seem to still be waiting for answers at the end of the story. I would recommend this as a thought provoking read if you can deal with the frustration of all those unresolved issues and tensions.
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar
Published by Penguin Viking, hardback March 2011
This review first appeared on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk, and Penguin Viking kindly provided a review copy