Should Your Book Club Read In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar?

Absolutely yes!  This book is a winner and whether you read it on your own or with your book club, you should definitely read it.  It was written in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  It won the Europe and South Asia Region of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book.  And it was Literary Masters selection for the month of February.  I must thank my brother–yes, the one who never visits libraries–for bringing this wonderful novel to my attention.

Warp speed plot synopsis:

The narrator, a grown man, looks back through the eyes of his nine year-old self, and tells us the story of  living under Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.  Suleiman’s father is a dissident, risking his life and those of his family, to rebel against the dictator.  Suleiman’s mother wants nothing to do with such trouble; she is more concerned with her own private rebellion–against the men who forced her into a hurried and arranged marriage against her will.  Suleiman, or Slooma to his loved ones, navigates the private trials and tribulations in his home and personal world, against the backdrop of an all-seeing, all-powerful public power.  As he tries to understand and take control of his little world, Slooma will open the door of his home and his family, letting that public and terrifying power in with lasting consequences for everyone.

So, what can your book club talk about?:

Well, you will definitely want to talk about Suleiman.  He is, without a doubt, one of the more interesting narrators I’ve come across.  You’ll want to explore his motivations for making the decisions he takes.  There are emotional, psychological, and pragmatic explanations for his actions, but they don’t all point to the same motivation.  He is, in a word, slippery.

What is he responsible for?  What did he do intentionally and what did he do unwittingly?  Was he a victim, or is he pathological?

Is he an unreliable narrator?  Yes, in the sense that he is telling us his story from memory, and memory is by definition unreliable.  However, is there more to this?  Is he telling us his story as a way of justifying his actions?

You will want to explore the Oedipal themes in the story.  This may help illuminate Suleiman’s motivations.

You will definitely want to explore the character of the mother.  She’s another incredibly interesting character.  What motivates her?  Her love for her son, or her lust for independent power?  Note the story-telling motif running throughout the story.  Note the parallels between Scheherazade and Suleiman’s mother.  Who chooses slavery over death?

The theme of betrayal pervades this book.  You’ll want to discuss whether any of it is justifiable.  You’ll also want to consider the pleasure that some of the characters take in submitting to authority.  What is the psychology behind this?

The imagery and symbolism in this novel are beautiful; the author began the book as a poem, and one can see this in the tropes he employs.  You’ll want to talk about the significance of the mulberries, and why the only remaining mulberry tree is in Rashid’s garden.  Why does Suleiman eat so many, and why does the sun make him sick?  What does the sun represent?  What does Bahloul the beggar represent?  What about the sea?

You’ll want to consider whether the book is asking the question:  how complicit are the characters in their own imprisonments?

You will want to talk about the title.  At length.

This book was written before the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Gaddafi.  You’ll want to talk about whether we respond to it differently, knowing what we now know about how history has played out.

You’ll want to talk about the moral dilemma:  does one sacrifice one’s family for the sake of the larger good, or protect one’s family at all costs?

I could go on, but I think this should get you going–happy reading, and have a great book club meeting!

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