Friday, May 15, 2009

Coming of Age

The Coming of Age novel is a genre with which we're probably all familiar. I think immediately of books like “Great Expectations”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Huckleberry Finn”, books in which the main character, a child or young adult, experiences adventures, conflicts or revelations which profoundly affect his passage into adulthood. Sometimes these experiences occur within the confines of the family itself, but other times outside events intrude on the child's life. In Hisham Matar's debut novel In The Country of Men, set in Libya in 1979, nine-year-old Suleiman, the first person narrator, understands nothing of the politics of Muammar Gaddafi's totalitarian regime. But he sees its effects on the lives of his parents and friends,

Matar is very effective in portraying the workings of a nine-year-old mind. Suleiman is confused and angry, stung by the lies his parents tell him, frightened by political interrogations he sees on television, uncertain where his loyalties should lie. As a result he commits a series of betrayals. It would certainly have been more dramatic, even cinematic, for him to commit a single dramatic betrayal and then be wracked with the guilt for the rest of the book. Matar's choice is much more nuanced and poignant. Suleiman is ashamed of his actions in the moment, uncertain of his motives, but then seems to file them away as he is forced to tackle yet another confusing and frightening event.

I also admired Matar's portrait of Suleiman's mother Najwa as seen through nine-year-old eyes. Although the boy is confused by the effect the 'medicine' his mother drinks has on her, his description gives us a vivid picture of a woman struggling with her anger at being forced into an arranged marriage and her terror that her husband's political activities will threaten her family.

And throughout the book Matar contrasts the blinding white light of the Libyan sun with the stifling darkness inside Suleiman's home as its frightened inhabitants pull their curtains closed.

This book is a poetic and powerful indictment of the corrosive and permanent effect of public violence and terror on the life of a child.

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