In the Country of Men

In the Country of Men - Hisham Matar I liked this overall--with a mild kept-reading-to-the-end liking, but I couldn't love it as I wanted to. The reason being I think just about the most unlikable child protagonist I've encountered in literature. The story is set in Qaddafi's Libya in 1979, and I did love how Matar rendered the setting--everything from the political to the personal to the foods and literature consumed. I came out of the book feeling I had a good sense what it was like growing up in that place and time. The writing was vivid, brought the place and people and events to life in a very realistic, gritty, often brutal way. The problem was Suleiman, the nine-year-old boy through which we see the events of this story. One review called him "a little shit" and it's apt. OK, he's a little boy--one might say just an ordinary one and that one should cut him some slack. I had no problem with identifying with the fear of the boy in Hosseini's The Kite Runner and how it caused him to feel guilt for not saving his friend, and that book I found tremendously moving. But even for nine-years-old, Suleiman acted in ways not just cowardly but monumentally stupid--worse, he acted in ways malicious and treacherous. I felt a lot more sympathy for his mother, forced into marriage with his father when she was fourteen years old. The whole Scheherazade motif in the novel did work for me, and I felt for her broken dreams. It wasn't hard to feel for the boy's father either, taking risks to try to bring democracy to his country. But the boy? No. Maybe it made it worse that this wasn't just written in first person, but actually from the point of view of the adult Suleiman, and I just didn't get any sense of guilt or regret--he seemed to have learned nothing.