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66 of 68 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 11, 2007
I learned about Hisham Matar's debut work "In the Country of Men" from an occasional piece that the Financial Times does called "Read Your Way Around the World." In the list the FT published in 2006, a one- to two-line description of Matar's book reeled me in. How often does one get to read a semi-autobiographical piece about growing up Libya? Since it wasn't available yet in the US, I ordered it straight away from Amazon UK.

It's not often I can say that I 'treasured' a reading experience. But that was the case with Matar's book. It was worth every penny of extra shipping to have the book in my hands right away.

I can't do the work justice here. Seen through a young child's eyes, it depicts life under the initial days of Muammar Gaddafi's 'Great Revolution.' Gaddafi himself is an off-stage presence in the book - never named, he is referred to others simply as 'The Guide' (he's known officially as 'Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution'). The majority of the action takes place in a single neighborhood. The reader sees how the revolution affects the fabric of Tripoli society. It's expertly and almost delicately told.

It's hard to believe Matar is a debut novelist. 'In the Country of Men' is a work to treasure.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
I'm normally not a fan of historical fiction, but as a world literature lover, I couldn't help but try this one. Even though it was a little difficult to get into, I am so, so glad I did.

In the Country of Men is a gripping account, from a small boy's perspective, of Gaddafi's infamous terror regime. It shimmers in the triumphs and fumes in the horrors of the the Libyan revolution of 1979, and expertly depicts Libyan culture and customs--the entire "world full of men and the greed of men"--as well. I found this a shocking, affecting read, and be forewarned: this book hits hard and will leave bruises.

There are a several difficult issues tackled in Suleiman's first-person narrative, each coated with a blasé haze of childish charm. The exterior ones among these, include gender inequality and societal persecution, but Hisham Matar dares to venture deeper as the story spins around the values of family, friendship, nationalism, and the definition of loyalty. He portrays in deliberate precision and indelicacy, the oppression of not only women, but also of humans and human rights; this is all poignant, truthful, and startlingly refreshing.

Facets of the narrator's childhood make him the most vulnerable, and yet most potent character. Most of the other characters are shallow or, as with the central themes, influenced by Suleiman's innocence and lack of awareness, but they are nevertheless lyrically and memorably described.

I'll admit this book was a bit slow for first half, but the second half blew me away. In the Country of Men is not the sort of book I'll soon forget. Hisham Matar has woven a brilliant novel on what it is to be family, what it means to grow up, and what it takes to be free, because they are all--the author claims--achievable aspirations... but only to few, in the land of men.

Pros: Raw, uncensored // Stunning literary style with both graceful and repulsive notes // Fascinating perspective of Gaddafi's Libya // Impressive stylistically, historically, and culturally // Mesmerizing and haunting // Unforgettable

Cons: Slow-moving start // Dry at times

Verdict: Hisham Matar's literary debut glitters in the backdrop of 1979 Tripoli and lingers in the yearning mind. Every so often you pick up a book so resonating and so captive of emotional truth, that it sends shivers down your spine and leaves an ache in your chest. In the Country of Men is one of those books.

Rating: 8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read; highly recommended.

Source: Complimentary copy provided by TripFiction in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!).
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2007
I heard about this book from an interview of Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air with the author Hisham Mater. In the interview Mater talked of his own life experience as a boy watching interrogations on Libyan TV and the eventual detention of his father and the exile of the family first to Egypt then England. The author came across as a very thoughtful and articulate, his description of his experience as a child coming so close to the horrors of torture clearly left its mark on him.

In the Country of Men, belongs to the semi fiction genre, it is based on real events witnessed first hand by the author but clearly the author let his very creative talents take over and weave a number of other interesting patterns on the same basic setting of Libyan social and political life in the Seventies.

Hot Mediterranean summer days, lots of white sand and the beautiful blue Mediterranean, a nine year only child living with a mother suffering from depression and alcoholism trying to make the most of a bad marriage. A father, who is somewhat remote and a bit caricature like is a businessman turned activist obsessed with making Libya a better place. Libya is very much right out of 1984 with much of the horrors, brain washing and denials and a great "Guide" too.

Mater's developed his own child character and that of his mother's superbly into complete multi dimensional human beings. The cruelty and contradictions in the child were masterfully portrayed. Also his sense of place and time is remarkable, Mater makes you virtually taste the beautiful delicious mulberries or sense the heat burning your feet from walking in the hot afternoons to the Tripoli beach.

The disappointing parts of the book were just two aspects; the limited development of the character of the father who was clearly central to the story. While it may have been Mater's intention to paint a picture from the eyes of a 9 year old and as a result a sketchy picture of the father may have been appropriate, this somehow jarred with me as the narrative was that of a more mature adult reflecting back on childhood days. This maturity came across in many ways but fell short when discussing the father. The second disappointing aspect of the book was the relationship with Karim, the childhood friend. Mater was brilliant in the way he dealt with the Karim relationship throughout the book but somehow appear to have felt compelled to tidy things up for a semi happy ending.

The interview with Terry Gross, revealed the true experience of Mater's life and the real life ending was far worse than the one he offered. Perhaps this would explain Mater's need to retain a distance from his father, even in a work of semi fiction and the relatively rushed ending of the book.

I strongly recommend this book as another beautifully written work in English with a strong Arab Mediterranean sensibility.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2008
THE AUDIO BOOK (Unabridged)
Though I first read the print copy of the book, after listening to the unabridged CD version of it, I'd highly recommend it as the reader is terrific--i.e, reads slowly enough for one to digest the material and savor the language and 2) does not overly dramatize it.

By the time I was ready to write a review of the book, too many had already been written. However, because my book group thought that the information I'd gleaned from others' interviews with the author added depth to their appreciation of his novel, I decided to post some of it here. And where relevant, I also added further background information via comments on others' reviews.

In interview after interview, Matar insists that Suleiman's story is not his story. "Suleiman's emotionally volatile and unpredictable mother plays a big role in his life whereas my mother and father were both very stable and reliable," Matar explains, adding that he had to research "how children of parents with drinking problems are affected."

However, says Matar, "I deliberately placed the action in the landscape I remember. The house is very much our house, the sea very much the sea I remember....The book was in a way an attempt to revisit the haunts of my youth and thus to try to wean myself of the country I had left and haven't been able to return to for over 28 years now....I failed, of course."

And, according to Matar, "the backdrop of Suleiman's story--the political unrest that was taking place--is based on things that did happen....But when I was Suleiman's age, it was very subtle. I sensed there were some things you could not say. You'd be sitting around the dining table and one of your uncles would say something and everyone would fall silent because they suddenly remembered there was a child at the table and he might carry these words elsewhere and then somebody would get arrested."

There were also public interrogations on TV, which Matar describes in retrospect as "very surreal." And he did occasionally see people he knew, including an uncle, being interrogated even though his parents tried to keep him from seeing any. But by the time he was 15, he says, "My father thought I was old enough to know what was going on in my country" and required him to watch a video of a famous execution. "It was deeply unsettling to me," said Matar, adding that he "loosely based the execution scene" in his novel on it.

Matar has been criticized by some for not writing a more political novel. According to the "Newstatesman," for example, "[Matar's] account provides us with no insight into the Libyan politics of the period, nor, oddly, does it generate any sympathy for the dissidents." Perhaps the reason some expected the book to do both is because of the fate of Matar's father.

Born in NYC while his father was serving briefly as a diplomat with the Libyan mission to the U.N., Matar and his family returned to Libya when he was 3. In 1979, when Matar was 9, his father's name appeared on a list the government wanted to interrogate, not because he was political but, explains Matar, "simply because he was a middle-class intellectual and a successful businessman" and thus "seen by the regime as bourgeoise." The family fled to Kenya and ultimately settled in Cairo, Egypt. It was not until then that Matar's father became a political activist and, says Matar, "began writing against the Libyan regime and organizing other exiles to unite and overthrow Qaddafi."

In 1990, when Matar was in school in England, his father, in Matar's words, "went to the front door and never returned." Though the family tried to find out what had happened to him, all the Egyptian government would tell them, says Matar, was that "he was being held because he'd crossed the line and done too much against one of their allies." Two years later, Matar's father managed to smuggle a letter out of the Libyan prison he'd been in since day 3; the next year they got another. That was l995 and the last time anyone heard from him, in spite of much help from many, including from Amnesty International.

In 2003, Matar wrote a moving piece for Amnesty International about the effect his father's disappearance has had on him and his family. "Torturous," was the word he used to describe the "vacancy" he's since felt. Asked recently how this had influenced his novel, Matar replied, "I don't know. One of the most difficult passages to write was the return of the father after he'd been tortured."

Though Matar's novel focuses on a young boy's inner turmoil and his mother's bitterness/ frustration rather than on Libyan politics, Matar has not been silent about the latter. In February of '07, Matar wrote an op ed piece for "The New York Times" entitled "Seeing What We Want to See in Qaddafi." In it he was highly critical of the 2004 deal the U.S. and Britain had made with the dictator in exchange for his help in their war on terror. One of his reasons, he wrote, was that "no country made it a condition in negotiations that Libya investigate the countless cases of the 'disappeared.' None of them compelled the Qaddafi government to even address the massacre at Abu Salim prison where, one night in June of 1996, more than 1,000 political prisoners were shot and killed." Matar now suspects that his father was one of the victims.

See the comments for the link to Matar's NY Times' article and the comments I added to others' reviews.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2007
Although Hisham Matar's debut novel may seem autobiographical --- the 30-something-year-old author shares many similarities with its narrator, Suleiman --- it is purely a work of fiction.

Nevertheless, it was inspired by actual events and presents readers with a searing portrait of Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, viewed through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. A complicated story of deception, pride, nationalism and sacrifice, IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN is both timely and poignant, and delivers an important message that is likely to resonate deeply with audiences the world over.

The novel opens as the 24-year-old Suleiman recalls the summer in Tripoli before he was sent away to live with friends of the family in Cairo --- the summer before everything changed. It is 1979 and he is nine years old. Much of his days are spent playing "My Land, Your Land" in the dirt with the boys down the street, helping his mother (Mama) around the house while his father (Baba) is at work and listening to her tell stories of her past or of Scheherazade from A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. It is dusty and scorching hot. He is carefree --- but not as lighthearted and unburdened as he would like.

In fact, his parents' behavior has been bothering him --- specifically, the secrets they try desperately (but fail) to keep from him. Mama gets "ill" from drinking from the dark bottle by her bedside more frequently than usual, and Baba appears jittery and distracted each night after returning from a long day's work. When he spots Baba walking into a strange building with green shutters and a red towel hung out front during the time he was supposed to have been on a business trip abroad, Suleiman becomes more confused and frustrated by his parents' increasingly apparent deceptions.

Then, when the father of his best friend and next-door neighbor Kareem, a confidant to Baba, is taken into custody by men in a white town car and later interrogated on public television by the Libyan Secret Police, Suleiman begins to feel like he and his family are in grave danger as well. But when he confronts his mother and their family friend, Moosa, about it after more men in a white town car stop by looking for Baba, and Mama responds by burning all the books in the house (including Baba's papers) and hanging a massive portrait of Qaddafi in the living room, Suleiman feels even more bewildered --- and scared. Especially the day that Baba doesn't come home.

With the phone ringing off the hook, and Mama and Moosa whispering to each other in the kitchen without giving him any comprehensible explanation, Suleiman soon takes matters into his own hands and does the only thing he thinks might help Baba and save his family: he befriends the man in the white town car who asks Suleiman for "a list of Baba's friends, as many names as possible, to vouch for him."

Meanwhile, Mama is behaving stranger by the minute. She bakes a cake for Ustath Jafer and Um Masoud, the government official and his wife across the street. Not soon after, a beat-up and bludgeoned Baba is allowed to return home and a somewhat stifled order is restored before the still-befuddled Suleiman is shipped off to Cairo to live under the care of Moosa's father, Judge Yaseen.

What makes IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN so haunting is that it is seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Because he is so young, Suleiman can only begin to grasp the kind of monstrosities that could await him and his family --- and anyone else who speaks out in opposition against Qaddafi's brutal rule. As he fumbles through childhood on the way to puberty, he also must come to terms with what it means to live --- and die --- for what you believe is right, no matter what the cost.

Although fictional, the story of the young and naïve Suleiman and his family is not so far-fetched. Countless families are torn apart by politics, warring faiths and underhanded betrayals, and millions of citizens and dissidents are persecuted daily for supposed crimes against their countries. IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN touches upon just one of these life-changing stories that pulls just as much weight as if it were heard on the evening news. A noteworthy debut from a promising young author.

--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2007
A stunning debut novel with depth of voice and exquisite writing. Matar renders the effects of life under oppression upon children, families and society with nuance, skill and emotion. He is second to none in writing adult memories from a confused child's perspective. I lived in Iran under the Savak .. Matar gets it right. Most highly recommended. He does what fiction does best .. puts you in the middle of the lives of others.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2007
It is the summer of 1979 in Tripoli, Libya, and the narrator of this novel remembers a boyhood year in which his life is forever changed by the repressive regime of Col. Quaddafi's revolutionary government. Little aware of what is going on around him, the boy struggles to understand the strange behavior of his father, who as we learn is an educated businessman with democratic aspirations for his country. Left for long periods of time alone with his mother, the boy puzzles over signs of her growing anxiety during a government crackdown on dissidents. As she talks with him, we begin to understand her own story of being forcibly married against her will at the age of fourteen.

Swept up in heightening waves of dread, the reader is taken by the novel into a sunlit nightmare of surveillance, torture, and public executions. Given to casual acts of cruelty himself, the boy is portrayed unsentimentally, and it's possible to connect all the novel's acts of disregard for humanity along a single spectrum. At the end, fifteen years later, the narrator looks back with regret at a life interrupted by political forces that have left him distrustful and alienated. It is a story that could be told by many in a world where authoritarian governments hold power and people in the hundreds of thousands have been uprooted from their homelands.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2007
Reading this book is not a pleasant experience -- it has more to offer than mere pleasure. It grips you like a vise while you read it and haunts you for a long time afterwards. The book is short and claustrophobic, taking place almost entirely in one home. It is an intensive exploration of the way a regime like Qaddafi's corrupts everything in its grasp, from overall social structure to the workings of the individual mind.

The plot proceeds mostly by hints and implications, producing a gradually increasing sense of dread that is appropriate to this subject matter. The author's portrayal of the protagonist, a nine-year-old boy, is courageous and completely unsentimental, exposing the cruelty and selfishness of this child; his passionate, jealous attachment to his mother; and his ruined spirit as an adult.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2009
In the Country of Men, the first novel by exiled Libyan Hisham Matar is as much a story of sin, redemption, and reconciliation, as it is a condemnation of the evils that men do in the name of patriarchy and despotic revolutions. The narrator, nine-year old Suleiman, lives in a well-to-do neighborhood of Tripoli, where the ever-present fear of the Revolutionary Committees of the "Guide" (one of the many titles assumed by the dictator Muammar Qaddafi) hangs in the air like the sweltering desert heat that crosses the Sahara to be halted by the cool breezes of the Mediterranean. Suleiman is the child of an arranged marriage, like most in the culture; his mother was hurriedly wed at fourteen to a man nearly ten years her senior. Now, at twenty-three, his mother soothes her anger and resentment with bottles of "medicine" she covertly buys from a nearby baker. Suleiman's father is often gone on "business" trips, during which time his mother retreats to her bedroom and young Suleiman learns to adapt to a constant shift between living in a world where he is the child and a world where he becomes an adult.
It would be anticlimactic to reveal the entire plot, or the final outcome, but if this were merely a story of very familiar family dysfunction, it would end there. The underlying thread of treachery and deceit only begins with the family. The much greater story involves the nature of who we are, when who we are depends on who we can trust and what we say we believe. Suleiman is a terribly conflicted boy trying to make sense of his world and find a place in it. His loyalties to each parent are constantly tested, while he struggles to understand the complexities of how those loyalties have become a part of his need for acceptance--by his parents, his friends, and eventually by the very forces that threaten to break his family apart.
Suleiman's sheltered upbringing and naiveté come dangerously close to having tragic consequences for his family; he is drawn into the intrigue and suspense of the lives of adults in his life, including his father, who are part of a movement of protest against the dictatorship, and only by a fortunate turn of events is the tragedy averted.
Hisham Matar has created, within In the Country of Men, a classic Bildungsroman that is more than just the story of growing up; it is a painful, yet poignant view of life through the eyes of a nine-year old boy who really thinks and acts like a nine-year old--confused, angry, impetuous, impatient, self-centered, even at times mean-spirited. Still, he is also loving, loyal, protective, intelligent, and wonderfully inquisitive. His character is so complex that it's hard to believe the author's insistence that the novel is not autobiographical.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2007
Hisham Matar's "In The Country of Men" is the third (and best) of six Man Booker Prize nominated titles last year which takes a child's perspective of the confusing adult world around it as its starting point. Suleiman, growing up in Gaddafi's terror regime in Libya in the late 70s/early 80s, senses something amiss when he spots his father in the market square one day as if in the guise of another person he doesn't know or recognise. His mother is jumpy, nervous, weepy, and frequently taking solace in a secret brew when she's not telling her young son the history of her own childhood, the tyranny of her own father, uncles and brothers and how she came to be married to her father. Soon after his best friend's father is arrested after being visited upon at night by men in black, problems arise for Suleiman's father and his likeminded counter revolutionary friends. Though Gaddafi is hardly mentioned by name - he is but a shadowy presence throughout, only materializing in a picture hung above the mantelpiece - everybody lives in fear of the unexpected knock on the door in the night that could change one's life forever.

Not surprisingly, blood will be spilt and an innocent man will go to his death in a brutal public hanging that will leave you shaking. There will be compromises made - is capitulation cowardice to be ashamed of, or is it courage to want to live to fight another day ? The grown up Suleiman, now living safely abroad, may look back and think he understands the madness that went on in his country before but as an adult, can he avoid judging his parents a little unfavourably, a little unfairly perhaps, for their decision ? Like the mad neighbourhood beggar the boys likes to taunt, the boy Suleiman may not be able to make sense of the adult world around him but emotionally he was always connected and tapping right into the love of his parents. So, which of the two perspectives is truer ?

Matar's debut novel is powerful and moving but it is less than polished in some essential aspect. For instance, the author started promisingly on the back story of Suleiman's mother which would have been a perfect way of revealing more about Libyan society to us but inexplicably, he lost interest in developing it further and left the thread of it hanging without any follow through. A pity. Such flaws aside, "In The Country Of Men" is an excellent read and highly recommended.
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