A SAGE Weekend on Radio Three – and In the Country of Men

No post for a while?!? Two excuses… I seem to be starting many books and not finishing them, always a problem in this house (and handy library). I also spent much of the weekend at the SAGE in Newcastle rushing around (well, for me) the Radio 3 Free Thinking Event. This took the form of many lectures, read essays (more interesting than it sounds) and debates around subjects as diverse as Electoral Reform, Northern Christianity and Pat Barker’s Life Class. The sessions were recorded for broadcast so I daresay I will have to rediscover the joys of Iplayer radio, as opposed to just watching Single Father and Spooks. There were several authors speaking, including Graham Pears of my last post, and Sarah Dunant of Sacred Hearts which I reviewed many moons ago. Look out for reviews of their books and others, when I actually finish them.

Today’s book is In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

I admit that this would not have been my first choice of book to read at this point, but it is the Book Group November choice, so I retrieved it from the back of a shelf. I own it simply because it was on the Booker Prize shortlist in 2006 and The Book People were offering the entire shortlist very cheaply. At some point I will write some more reviews on their website!

This book did not seem very tempting to begin with, as it deals with the difficult political situation in  Libya when repression of  activists seemed brutal. There is a disturbing scene or two in which there is suffering and the effects of interrogation, but they do not dominate the book as I had expected. It is essentially written from the point of view of a small boy who witnesses the struggle as ‘The Guide’ comes to power. His mother suffers from a mysterious illness, though her ‘medicine’ is probably under the counter, illegal alcohol. The book recalls events when the boy’s father and his friend’s father disappear, and the boy tries to understand adult events alongside playground fights.

This book works for me because it is consistently the view of a small boy, not analysing, evaluating or justifying, but reacting to events and half truths. There are the concerns of  a boy for what he eats, how he gets on with his friends, his projects of collecting and making. He does not always understand what is going on, but then, neither do the adults. There is the constant theme of betrayal; the accidental betrayal of friends and family when every word must be guarded, the betrayal of the boy’s trust. There is brutality and it is a realistic novel in its basic descriptions of fallible humans. The most betrayed is arguably the boy’s mother, forced into marriage when frighteningly young by her brother’s account of her meeting another teenager. My friend, CB, said that she thought that it was not a happy book, but beautifully written. There are little glimpses of humour, as in the giant picture of ‘The Guide’ in the reception room; the boy fears at one point that they will have to display one in every room when he hears a thump on the door.

It is not a long book, but conveys a lot within its 240 odd pages. It is well balanced, suggests a lot of undercurrents to the reader, and is interesting and involving, but not nightmarish. I cannot say that I enjoyed this book; the subject matter is too upsetting for enjoyment. I did learn a lot, however, and found it a fascinating microcosm of life under a repressive regime. I look forward to discussing it at the book group, and suggest it as a good, serious book, beautifully written.