Anatomy of a disappearance : a novel

In this heartbreaking and haunting coming-of-age tale, an adolescent boy suffers the loss of both parents. Through a series of reflections and encounters that are seamlessly woven into a plot filled with the intrigue of a John Le Carre novel, family secrets are revealed that bit by bit clarify childhood misperceptions and longings for familial intimacy. Anatomy is aptly used in the title, since this is his dissection and examination of events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of his diplomat father, all of which does nothing to lessen or assuage the sense of loss.

Nuri’s childhood takes place in modern Cairo, in a world of material comfort, with family servants who are emotionally close to the young boy and yet held at a distance because of social class and customs, plus the guarded emotions of parents, close relatives, and family friends, which contribute to mysteries and unanswered questions for this young boy. His mother dies from an unknown illness. Two years later father and son take a vacation at the Magda Marina in Alexandria where Nuri claims to be the first one to spot the quietly alluring Mona who is fourteen years his senior and fifteen years younger than his father. There is very much the implication of a Phaedra theme because Mona obliquely flirts with the boy. His father marries her and Nuri is sent to boarding school outside of London. It is when they all take a vacation to Geneva that the father disappears and their familiar life falls apart. Eventually, over the next few years, life begins to partially reassemble for Nuri.

Without giving away the ending, this is a story of the most haunting type of loss--disappearance, because there is no resolution, only hopeful vigilance. Matar beautifully touches on the full range of emotions from overwhelming grief, anger and resentment with the resulting guilt, to resignation. Because of the circumstances of an only child of diplomats, this story is very much reminiscent of Graham Greene’s short story, “The Basement Room” in Collected Stories and the film based on the story, Fallen Idol, and A. J. Cronin’s The Spanish Gardener. However this story offers a different perspective and rich insights into the consequences of modern political machinations.

This is Libyan writer Hisham Matar’s second novel and although not set in Libya as is his first novel, In the Country of Men, both stories certainly draw upon the author’s own life. In particular this book, since Matar’s father was a diplomat and dissident voice against the Gadhafi regime. He was kidnapped in 1990, tortured, imprisoned and was never heard from again.