I know that deep down a book cover doesn’t matter, but we all have to admit that we can fall for a book without reading the blurb or even a word of it because we have fallen under the covers spell when we set out eyes upon it. This was the case when my eyes fell upon ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ by Hisham Matar. I knew nothing of the author, I knew nothing about the book, and yet it was a book I simply had to read. I also think I fell under the spell of the title too. Of course this could have ended up with me being really let down, however I was left spell bound as I devoured the book in a single sitting.
If a book had an emotion then I think the one word that you could conjure up when finishing ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ is longing. As we follow the story of Nuri, who is on holiday in Alexandria with his father, who has recently been bereaved by the death of his mother. Here he befriends a foreign woman (who is set alight from the first scene by her bright yellow swimsuit) Mona, a young woman who he soon becomes rather obsessed with before learning that his father has very similar feelings. Of course Nuri only being a boy at the time knows this can lead nowhere yet that doesn’t stop him from being romantic about the whole situation, for his father though it is a different matter. Things are of course going to get complicated and initial problems between father and son since Nuri’s mothers death start to become darker, even bitter.
“She was twenty-six, Father forty-one and I twelve: fifteen years separated them, and fourteen separated her from me. He scarcely had any more right to her than I did. And the fact that Mother was also twenty-six when she and Father had married did not escape me. It was as if Father was trying to turn back the clock.”
If this wasn’t enough to keep a story brimming with tension Matar adds several more strands which simmer in the background. One of the strands is that of Nuri’s fathers place in the past history of Libya where he was the right hand man to a King who was subsequently assassinated leaving him forced to flee to France. This opens a big background underlying subplot about the state the family is in, how they have made the money they have and where they have ended up. There are also two slight mysteries. Nuri’s mothers death leaves some open ended questions and there is also the fact that when the book initially opens, before this fateful holiday, Nuri has told us somewhere in the future sat by Lake Geneva with Mona that his father has strangely disappeared. All these things bubble away in the background as you read on which is incredibly satisfying to have unfolding in the pages in your hands.
It also to me showed what a stunning writer Matar is. I hadn’t heard of him before despite my interest in the Man Booker, for which he was shortlisted with his debut novel ‘In The Country of Men’ in 2006. Yet having done some research after reading the book I discovered that his own father disappeared several decades ago (which he wrote about in the Guardian here) and this seems to be an outpouring of some of that. Not that that should take anything away from this book by the way or Matar’s prose. His writing is exquisite, not a phrase I tend to use very often, and is clearly designed to say the maximum in a minimal way yet effortlessly without force. There is much going on in the book and switches in time and he gives the reader enough information to grasp at the unsaid which he trusts the reader will work out and question.
‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ felt like one of those rare books you more than just read. You live it. You learn it, and in my case I went off afterwards and learnt far more about it once I had finished. It’s a short book with so much to say I would be amazed if anyone who reads it isn’t left thinking about it or even starting it all over again after their first reading. I am inclined to agree with Dovegreyreader who after reading it tipped it as an early possible Man Booker contender. I certainly would be happy to see it there. 9.5/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
I am now of course rather eager to get my hands on ‘In The Country of Men’ have any of you read it and what did you think? Do you know any other fictional books based in, about or around the after effects of events in Libya and its history?