In the Country of Men
Read for my book club
In the Country of men is the story of Suleiman, a nine year old boy living in Tripoli, Libya. His life is one of relative ease with his father a successful businessman. Times, however, are changing, as Libya is in the midst of a revolution, with Moammer Qaddafi having risen to power. Suleiman’s father is playing a dangerous game as he becomes part of an underground resistance group. Suleiman’s mother, Najwa, urges his father to flee the country, but he stubbornly refuses and insists he is more useful within Libya. Left to raise Suleiman alone much of the time, she turns to alcohol to try to forget her troubles, buying it illegally from the local baker. Growing up in a traditional Muslim family, she was forced to marry Faraj when she was only fourteen. Gradually, she grows to love him, but in a country dominated by men, Najwa struggles to find her own identity.
When Suleiman’s father, Faraj, is taken by the Revolutionary Party, Suleiman wonders whether he will ever see his father again. Their neighbour, Ustath Rashid, has been murdered by these same men because of his political beliefs. For his own safety, Suleiman is sent to Egypt and as it turns out, he is never to return to his homeland.
Sense of place is an important part of the book, and Tripoli, with its market square in town and its coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, is a character in itself.
Opinions differed about this novel in my book club. Some loved it, and some thought that nothing much happened. For me, the writing is deceptively simple, but underneath is a complex novel with many layers and plenty to think about. We can’t really begin to imagine how difficult life must be living in a country such as Libya. The choices people are often forced to make in order to keep their families safe must be excruciating. It is a shame that it is such as struggle to live in a place that sounds so beautiful.
Matar’s debut novel was nominated for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.
Collectively we rated this book 7.5/10