Anatomy of a Disappearance: A Novel

  • Hisham Matar
  • The Dial Press
  • 240 pp.

Summer of 42 in Middle Eastern clothes.

Reviewed by Andrew Imbrie Dayton

Anatomy of a Disappearance is the tale of young Nuri el-Alfi coming to grips with his mother’s mysterious death, his political father’s unrelated and even more mysterious disappearance some years later, and his complicated relationship with his young, vivacious stepmother, Mona.

Matar can write with a sensibility that is sensual and poetic and he gets off to a wonderful start: In a brief two page opening chapter he touchingly develops the central themes and mysteries of the novel. He carries this momentum into the next, slightly longer chapter, which develops tension over the mystery of who is Mona, while working through Nuri’s nostalgic memories of his mother. Then come the chapters about Mona. In these the sexual tension crackles from the get-go, with the Freudian triangle of father, pubescent son and alluring seductress. Here, Matar is at his best. A simple description in which Nuri admires the newly encountered Mona at a beach in Alexandria is positively electric: “She was pulling her ankle, arching her neck, the ridge of her spine pressing against the yellow strap” of her swimsuit.

Sadly, the reading is largely downhill from there. It takes almost half the book for the father to disappear. When he does, it’s pretty much poof, he’s gone: A bunch of Swiss lawyers, witnesses, government officials and old friends of his father variously exchange a lot of hushed whispers or leave town precipitously – and then, it’s over. The rest of the book involves Nuri’s relationship with Mona and Nuri’s tedious march to his majority and an understanding of his father’s legacy.

Plots need more than mystery. Certainly they need advancement. Unfortunately, after the promising opening chapters, Matar’s sense of drama deteriorates to characters who hesitate a second too long before answering, who look at Nuri and turn their backs as if involved in a conspiracy, who take too long to answer his calls, yet all of whom do little more. Any successive removal of the veils of secrecy is utterly lacking. As for Nuri’s relationship with Mona, it’s understandable for an adolescent to have adolescent fantasies, but for the author to actually realize them in the plot strains credulity. A deft touch could get around this, but in this endeavor Matar can only be described as ham-handed.

The same applies to technical details of the plot. The only witness to his father’s disappearance is (again straining credulity) photographed by a news photographer within 15 minutes of the disappearance. So good is the image in the newspaper that Nuri can see the imprint of the bedclothes still on the witness’s face (highly doubtful after 15 minutes, and highly doubtful that any newspaper reproduction would capture it). Then, towards the end of the book Nuri recalls that the image of the witness in the newspaper was barely good enough for him to recognize the witness’s face. Though these incongruous details are largely incidental to the plot, they do help shatter any suspension of disbelief. In fairness, at the very end, despite ultimate revelations that are more surprising than compelling, the closing character interactions, particularly those between Nuri and Mona, are acutely painful and grippingly portrayed – just not enough so to justify the long trudge to get to them.

In short, Anatomy of a Disappearance seems more of a young adult diversion than literary fiction, more of a skeleton than a corpus. If you want that sort of adolescent titillation and don’t hanker to savor it in a foreign setting, you’re probably better off saving your money and renting a DVD of Summer of 42.

Andrew Imbrie Dayton is Contributing Editor for The Washington Independent Review of Books and a coauthor of the forthcoming novel, The House That War Minister Built (Octavio Books, September 20, 2011).

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