Hisham Matar’s second novel (following his much-lauded, substantially-awarded debut, In the Country of Men) reads like a fast-moving dream, events jarringly, jaggedly forced together, and yet somehow managing to maintain a clear, thoughtful narrative. Narrator Steve West’s methodically-paced, calmly-controlled voice imbues Matar’s haunting story with dignity and gravitas.
Disappearance, absence, displacement loom large throughout Nuri’s life. Even as a young boy, what Nuri knows of his Cairo home is already a compromised existence-in-exile as a result of his father’s political past. When his mother dies, his father remarries a vibrant young woman named Mona whom the 12-year-old Nuri claims as his own upon first sight. Sent away to an exclusive English boarding school, Nuri is separated from all that is familiar, including the devoted servant girl who helped raise him.
And then his father disappears, in 1972 when Nuri is just 14. That loss becomes the single defining event of Nuri’s life; in the desperate, unending search to discover what happened, both Nuri and Mona learn as many truths about themselves, and each other, as about the distant, enigmatic man who once held them tenuously together.
The missing parent looms large in both of Matar’s titles, telling proof that he writes what he knows: Matar lost his own father, a Libyan dissident, to a politically motivated kidnapping in 1990; decades later, the elder Matar remains missing.
In a January 2010 article for the UK’s Guardian, Matar wrote about learning that his father was seen “‘[f]rail, but well’” in 2002 in a secret prison, although the news took eight years to reach the surviving family: ” … weeks from finishing that novel [Anatomy], I learn that my father, who disappeared 20 years ago, might be alive … Uncanny how reality presses against that precious quiet place of dreaming. As if life is jealous of fiction.” Fictional as Anatomy claims to be, echoing his literary stand-in Nuri, Matar holds on to his father’s coat waiting for his someday-return. “Maybe it still fits him,” he muses.