Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar

Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar

Book Review of Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

When a young boy loses his mother, one consequence is that he finds himself having to relate to his father in a new way, perhaps with a new intensity, which may or may not be an improvement on the older, more easy-going but semi-detached relationship.

In Anatomy of a Disappearance young Nuri finds himself full of grief for his mother but far from consoled by his relationship with his rather distant father, a political activist, world traveller and lover of women.

Nuri goes on holiday with his father to a beach-front hotel in Alexandria, but notes that “he seemed to have lost his way with me; widowhood had dispossessed him of any  ease that he had once had around his only child”

While sitting by the pool one day, Nuri meets Mona, a young woman in a yellow swimming suit and in the easy way which young boys can sometimes adopt, finds himself picking a thorn out of her toe.  Nuri’s father watches the exchange between Mona and Nuri and the outcome of his glance suggests that it is not only the son who will become entranced with Mona.

For the rest of the holiday, Nuri follows Mona around, observing her every movement and developing a powerful early-adolescent love for her. One morning Nuri comes down to breakfast and finds that Mona and his father have already eaten and are walking by the sea, “their paces could not have been better matched”.  With adult eyes we see what Nuri is soon going to discover, that Mona is going to be a permanent feature in both their lives from now on, but her emotional hold of both father and son is going to lead to some subtle complications later on.

Hisham Matar is a fine writer, perfectly portraying the yearning of adolescence and the growth into adult-hood of Nuri, a thoughtful and serious boy, who’s emotional development will be increasingly steered by the beautiful and enigmatic Mona.

But this is not just a book about a boy’s feelings for an older woman.  Nuri’s father is a political activist who operates on the world stage, and the story takes a dramatic turn with events happening across several nations.  

Nuri, needs his mother to help him deal with fear and loss, but instead he has the undoubtedly caring Mona, but his feelings for her are mixed up with a secret longing, and her attempts to comfort him present him with confused signals which are easily misinterpreted.   As Nuri grows older, the fourteen years that separate them age become a narrower gulf:

A scrupulous observer would have of course noticed the awkward nervousness her beauty caused in me, but my deliberate and shameful self-delusion which she always found a way to encourage, persisted.  She sloped her arm through mind, marrying her shoulder to my back so I was slightly in front, like an officer leading the way.

Mona wants to be a good step-mother but she is also a young woman and seems to be unable to stop giving mixed signals so her step-son.  This relationship is never over-stated.  Hisham Matar is a fine writer who manages to suggest rather than to over-state, so we readers too are left looking for subtle signals to indicate the inner conflicts which both characters are feeling.  It is all done rather well, and the writing is atmospheric and intangible, leaving a sense of mystery where other writers would have allowed these hidden feelings to be more overt.

I enjoyed reading this book. At first I thought I was going to get bored with so much adolescent angst, but the story soon takes off in some very unexpected directions.  The writing is beautiful throughout – sparse, elegant prose which demonstrates Matar’s ability to exercise restraint where it is required, levaing the reader to fill in the gaps. Reading Anatomy of a Disappearance is a joint-effort, the words generating an inner dialogue with readers as they reflect on the occasionally poetic turn of phrase.

Hisham Matar is well-qualified to write this book, born in America of Libyan parents he spent his childhood in Libya and Egypt, but took his degree in architecture in London.  As the book moves around from one location to another it is quite clear that this is normal territory to this cosmopolitan writer.

I have read some very fine books recently, and Anatomy of a Disappearance reminds me a little of Nicole Krauss’s Great House in that the quality of the writing is the main feature of the novel, with the events of the story being subordinate to the atmosphere created by the scenes and the meaning of the relationships described.