Anatomy of a Disappearance, By Hisham Matar

The changing state of Libya spins a tale
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The Independent Culture

Hisham Matar's first novel, 2006's In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the Booker prize. That helped Matar win a sudden dose of attention, only made more intense by a tragic personal background.

Matar is from Libya, but grew up in Cairo. In 1990, his father – a political dissident who moved to Egypt to escape the Gaddafi regime – was kidnapped by agents working for the Libyan government. He has never been found. Matar has waged a campaign to find the truth, becoming in the process something of an interpreter of his homeland for audiences in the west. The current uprising in Tripoli has seen him commenting across television and writing for the The New Yorker.

In the Country of Men dealt with a childhood in Libya and an absent father; now, in Anatomy of a Disappearance, Matar again traverses semi-autobiographical ground. His protagonist is Nuri, a teenage boy whose father remarries a young English woman, Mona, after his wife dies. For Nuri, growing up in Cairo in the early 1970s (the family are from Libya, where Nuri's father was once a government minister), pain at the loss of his mother is cut across by an electrifying desire for his beautiful stepmother. That longing is disrupted when he is sent to school in England, but then Nuri's father disappears and Nuri and Mona are left to remake their lives amid the wreckage caused by his absence.

This is a tightly coiled, masterfully controlled narrative, informed by a feeling of great airlessness that smothers us in both Nuri's longing, and his unfathomable loss.

Matar pushed back against critics who saw autobiography in his first novel, but it's impossible, now, to avoid the feeling that here is an author pouring his own experience onto the page. That makes it all the more important, however, to recognise the ways in which Anatomy of a Disappearance is a successful piece of fiction. Matar has a beautifully economical style, and a wonderful way with physical detail. How's this for the lazy, reluctant way a train moves away from a station: "The train jerked into motion, its long, sad weight yielding."

Nuri grows up and passes through university, but then his search for his father begins to consume him. Matar deals with his obsession with a great, tender psychological acuity. Anatomy of a Disappearance is a testament to the terrible human cost of unjust government in the Arab world. It is, by design, an artful novel; accident of circumstances has made it a timely one.