February 21, 2011 3:43 am

Anatomy of a Disappearance

 

Anatomy of a Disappearance, by Hisham Matar, Viking, RRP£16.99, 256 pages

Hisham Matar's second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, is a beautifully crafted tale coiled around an enigma.

Nuri, the narrator, is 14 years old when his father Kamal is kidnapped from an apartment in Geneva. The mystery surrounding the abduction, along with the guilt about his own powerlessness, haunt Nuri as he grows up in an English boarding school, attends university in London, and finally returns to his family home in Cairo.

The sudden rending of family life, the secrecy and betrayals that occur under an authoritarian state, the unspoken fear of losing what we cherish most: all were themes of Matar's celebrated first novel, In the Country of Men. Once again, he examines them through the eyes of a child trying to make sense of a confusing grown-up world.

“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest,” reads the book’s opening line. “Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table.” The novel is as much about how a person vanishes as it is about how the memory of a vanished person is preserved and transformed.

Its title suggests that the book’s main concern is with Kamal’s sudden vanishing. Above all, however, Anatomy of a Disappearance offers an anatomy of love – of Nuri's melancholy love for his dead mother; the filial love for his family’s devoted housekeeper Naima; and the dangerous love for his stepmother Mona.

“I wanted to wear her as you would a piece of clothing, to fold into her ribs, be a stone in her mouth,” Nuri remembers about his first encounter, aged 12, with Mona, who is 14 years his senior. Their relationship is fraught with unspoken desires.

Nuri’s longings and attachments are shaped by his need to atone for a loss for which he was not responsible. “Most men spend a lifetime trying to understand their fathers”, the family lawyer tells him long after Kamal's disappearance. However, Nuri’s most meaningful discovery is that in order to understand his father he will first have to understand the women his father loved.

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