Monday, 2 April 2012

Anatomy of a Disappearance

"She must know that your father married her because of you. He always punished himself, wishing he were a better father. He used to say he loved you so much he froze around you. At first he thought Mona might be good for you because he saw how fond you were of each other."

Trying to analyse why you pay attention to reviews and hype about some books and not others can be quite difficult. Somehow Hisham Matar's first novel, In the Country of Men, passed me by, as did the original hardback release of his second, Anatomy of a Disappearance. It doesn't help that I don't really pay attention to Booker and other such prizes the way I used to, when I was an earnest young man determined to Keep Up with what was happening in the world of books. But I did myself a disservice, as having finally read Anatomy of a Disappearance, I can say that it's an excellent book, and one I pretty much devoured in one hit.

It's a novel about an unconventional love triangle, between 12-year-old Nuri el-Alfi, his widower father (a former Egyptian politician), and his father's new wife, half-English, half-Arab Mona. Most importantly, it's about what happens when the father is violently removed from the picture. Even as the two survivors start to turn against each other, Mona is the centre of Nuri's existence. The time he spends apart from her flies by, sometimes whole years passing in a line or two, while the time spent with her is described almost gesture by gesture. And the book is very good indeed on the demands  adults make on children who are too weak to give what's needed, or even to understand it, which can look like cruelty--and sometimes is.

Anatomy of a Disappearance is also unusual in that its concerns are entirely emotional, physical and political: it's rare for a book by a writer with an Arabic background to succeed in the English-speaking publishing world these days unless they overtly grapple with Islam, whereas Anatomy barely considers faith of any kind at all. This has the excellent side effect that the designers of the various covers are free to concentrate on what's really important about the book, rather than resorting to the cliches of covered female faces that seem to feature on every second book with a Middle Eastern (the rest of the covers usually make use of either guns or oil). The physical reality of Mona is what the different cover designs focus on instead...

Commonwealth hardback (Viking/Penguin), photo by Stephen Simpson

Commonwealth paperback (Penguin)

US edition from Dial Press

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