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In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

The truth is sadder than fiction

Hisham Matar's gripping first novel, one of the surprise inclusions on this year's Man Booker Prize shortlist, takes the reader to the Libyan capital Tripoli in the 1970s, and explores Gaddafi's political terror as seen through the eyes of a child.

The narrator is nine-year-old Suleiman, a boy oppressed by the weight of many secrets. First, there's the secret he carries for his unhappy mother, with whom he is wrapped up in an intense, sometimes smothering relationship. During the long, lonely nights when his father Baba is away, Suleiman is the only witness to his mother's addiction to her "medicine", the illegal alcohol she obtains by stealth.

Then, when the Revolutionary Committee men come to drag off one of Baba's friends as a traitor to the regime, there is another confusing secret for Suleiman to keep. Baba's collection of books, with titles like Democracy Now, must be hurriedly burned and no-one is to know. But there is a policeman lingering in a car outside Suleiman's home who would like to hear more about the activities of Baba and his friends, while a mysterious echo sounds on the family's telephone. Some secrets are hard for a child to keep.

Matar's depiction of the brutal Libyan regime gains power from being viewed from Suleiman's guileless perspective. The child is cruelly exposed to its worst excesses, as public executions are broadcast in all their obscenity on the television screen. But more subtly, Matar also suggests how political terror stains everyone who lives under it: dissident Baba, who crumbles under torture; Suleiman's mother, who must grovel to neighbours she detests in order to protect her family. Even Suleiman himself, just an ordinary child with all a child's unruly and passionate impulses, can be tempted into acts of betrayal. A chilling passage in the novel shows how easily Suleiman is drawn into complicity with the secret policeman seeking evidence against his father, seduced by the lure of adult attention.

Sadly, the author knows his territory only too well. Hisham Matar is the son of a Libyan diplomat, and was forced to leave Tripoli at the age of nine, when his father's name appeared on a list of people the regime wished to interrogate and it became too dangerous for the family to remain in Libya. They fled to Egypt, but later, while Hisham was at boarding school in England, his father was kidnapped by the Libyan secret police and taken back to the country to be imprisoned and tortured. Nothing has been heard of him since 1995; the Matar family do not know whether he is alive or dead.

The shadow of that trauma hangs over the book. Yet if In the Country of Men offers insights into experiences few British readers have had to share, many of its themes are deeply familiar. The anxious bond between Suleiman and his alcoholic mother is one of the strongest elements of the novel; Matar has written not just a story about a troubled country, but also a beautifully nuanced tale of the complexity of family relationships and the painful vulnerabilities of childhood.

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