24. Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Published in 2011 by The Dial Press.

Nuri’s childhood is well-heeled, sensitively moulded; he does not lack for parental affection, though it is frequently distilled with eccentricity. The recipient of uncommon, and uncommonly shown, affection from his parents, he finds himself, at a tender age, thrown into a bemusedly altered state when his mother succumbs to a mysterious illness. In an attempt to restitch the tenuous fabric of their familial comfort, Nuri and his father, former political dissident of international reknown, Pasha, vacation at the Magda Marina Hotel, a sweltering beachside resort dotting Alexandria’s coastline. It is there that father and son encounter the entrancingly beautiful, yellow bikini-clad Mona. Their interactions with her form the basis of a complicated, acutely felt triangular relationship that spans erotic awakenings, unspoken betrayals, and the passage of many years, indelibly altering each participant in its perfumed wake. When Nuri and Mona are left reeling in the aftermath of Pasha’s abduction, the mire of bureaucratic red tape and festering resentments through which they must navigate leave them sceptical as to just how precise their lifelong impressions have been, of the man they love most.

Something about reading Matar’s prose puts one in mind of wandering through the dense foliage of a half-sentient dream, wherein the author delineates, blurs and casts colours of sound and light over our keenest emotive reactions, wearing the robes of a master chiaroscurist. Seemingly ordinary expositions are transmogrified so that we drink his imagery beneath a sea that is mapped somewhere between our own imagination meeting his. Rarely do we doubt this authenticity of voice, which renders the work as easy to absorb (for the reader who appreciates fineness of form) as the purest air. Lexically, stylistically, Matar barely makes a misstep, and in this regard, each page is a pleasure.

Threads of the disturbingly and entrancingly erotic hem each page of Anatomy of a Disappearance, and they don’t strictly apply to the characters one might pair by default, either, which is what makes the implementation of this ragged desire all the better. Insofar as the tri-pointed bond among stoic Pasha, mercurial Mona and frequently discomfited Nuri himself can be said to be its own personage, that unnamed fourth character that embodies their inharmonic disunion feels eros across the board. Some of the best passages of the novel thickly hint at never-to-be-resolved shards of sexual tension between father and son; the foundations of this are even more intriguing to parse than every sweaty boudoired flirtation that Nuri and Mona trade, predictably. Those open to the multivalence of burgeoning sexuality will find this aspect of the reading richly, thoughtfully cast.

Emotional complexity could be said to be the feeling cornerstone of the novel; this marries seamlessly with the thematic exploration of the survivor’s impasse: of what remains to be done once a loved one’s enforced absence drags itself past the point of rational hope. The novel is also constructed as much on the skeletal considerations of a bildungsroman, making the aching peregrinations of Nuri all the more valid. We both feel for him, and feel that his suffering, his sense of displacement at his typecastedly stolid British boarding school, his fumblings through the onsault of sexual prerogative, are necessary and credible. If Matar has Nuri flounder and regret for the sake of sustaining depth, then it is skilfully done, not without compassion, not without (more importantly), reminding us of how easily replaceable his childhood and teenage difficulties are, with any of our own, barring (or including) the shadow of a father one fears may never return, or be returned.

At times, Nuri grapples for an identity outside of the distant cloak of his father’s presence, and the complexity of his reaction to feeling this is vividly imparted—his reluctance, guilt, shame, bravado, swirl all together, blotting onto the page our impressions of him as a meticulously drawn protagonist, worthy of our attention, sympathy and solicitude. In one of the most perspicaciously hopeful scenes of the novel, an adult Nuri pauses in the midst of a solitary walk, to consider the apartment block before him.

“The stone buildings stood dimly in the night, and, looking at them, I felt a deep longing to inhabit their rooms. To make love and eat and bathe and sleep in there, to quarrel and make promises, to sit with friends and talk into the night, to listen to music, read a book, write a letter, consider the position of a new object, watch flowers in a low vase, watch them at different times of the day, clip their stems and replace their water daily, move them away from a harsh light, a drafty passage, draw out their time.”

Occasionally, the contemplation over whether Pasha will ever reenter Nuri’s life becomes subtly secondary to the question of whether or not Nuri will ever successfully navigate a personhood with which the latter can be content, away from Pasha’s all-encompassing orbit. Truly, Nuri works against the threat of his own inevitable disappearance, specifically in how he can make his life count, before the decline, in how he can etch himself visibly into a world where he, not Pasha, can own the starring role.

Some books seem so quietly, inexorably suffused with the idea of the best they could be that they never quite, to phrase it with seeming, but unintentioned unkindness, get over themselves. Anatomy of a Disappearance is one of the most thoughtful, thinking person’s reads I’ve had the pleasure to know this year, but perhaps much of its internal grey space is never externally worked out across the page. The result is a study of the intricately plotted map of minefielded human interaction, which may yield more casualties of clarity than clearly charted coordinates… which, when you’re reminded of Tolstoy’s oft-quoted opening liner on family, seems to be less disingenuous than damned honest.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by the Random House Publishing Group (The Dial Press imprint) for review, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by their generous gift of gratuitous literature.

4 thoughts on “24. Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

  1. Currently researching reviews of this book, due to my ‘person’s’ constant pestering to read it. I must say, I very much enjoy your wording. Interesting review.I will be attempting to peruse your page further- if you don’t mind! 🙂


    1. Thank you ever so much for reading and commenting, skiesaregrey. I’d be very interested to hear how you like the book, if you get round to reading it…and yes, by all means, peruse the blog to your heart’s content. Hope to see your comments gracing the site again in the future!


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