In the Country of Men is the story of the el-Dawani family and their struggle to survive after the September Revolution in Libya during which Gaddafi came to power. It is narrated by Suleiman, the son of the family, as an adult, though most of the novel occurs when he is just nine years old. As a young child, he struggles to understand what is happening in his country. When the father of a friend is arrested as a traitor, Suleiman and his peers struggle to come to terms with this unexpected development. When Suleiman’s own father disappears, he must deal with an alcoholic mother and a man who is out to obtain evidence that his father is a traitor.
Matar does an excellent job of capturing the youthful inexperience and naiveté of a nine-year-old boy. He is also able to communicate the frustration that comes from the helplessness a child feels. In addition, the reader cannot help but recognize the attempt a child makes to become relevant to events they cannot understand. Suleiman often becomes filled with an inexplicable anger when dealing with those around him: his mother, friends and a local homeless man. He strikes out both vocally and physically. At times he becomes so emotionally detached that it is difficult to sympathize, even in his extremely fragile condition. His attitude can only be reconciled with a possible desire to make himself heard and seen in a world that finds him otherwise unimportant.
Unfortunately, this cold detachment which Suleiman often personifies, along with the future narration, makes the novel cold and strangely void of feeling. The adult Suleiman relates his tale without any explanation or apologies. His actions seem to exist in a moral and ethical void. It is also not very apparent how his youthful experiences shaped him as a man, because only a few pages of the book relate the present.
In the Country of Men is an intriguing portrait of a family living in a police state. Suleiman is not a typical loveable child, but one dealing with circumstance outside of his control and understanding. However, the narration leaves out some desirable elements and gives the story a sterile feeling, which hinders the story. Despite these failings it is worth reading, particularly for those who enjoy novels that attempt to broaden worldview.