Short listed for the 2006 Booker prize this novel is written in the form of a harrowing memoir of the narrator’s (Souleiman, now 25) ninth year (1979) in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, a city juxtaposed between the unremitting desert and the ever present blue of the Mediterranean Sea. The descriptive passages powerfully depict both the beauty and the brutality of this place at that time. However the first-person voicing of the novel is not always credible for a child of nine years old given the complexities of his situation.As with many so-called national “revolutions” archaic institutionalised forms of violence against women are left spectacularly in tact. So we learn about Souleiman’s mother forced marriage at the age of 14 after 30 days in solitary confinement as punishment for socialising with a boy in a coffee shop. The one and only time she conceives is during her rape on the first night with her 28 year old husband which is executed while she is unconscious from shock. The book reveals how the fragile and vulnerable union between Souleiman’s parents develops various off key ways of adapting including the use of drugs by the mother and the inappropriate and ultimately self defeating forms of resistance against the state by the father. In addition both parents abuse Souleiman, not physically but emotionally, subjecting him to pressures unnatural and unhealthy for a developing child. The mother uses him as an emotional shield against her unwanted husband continually reiterating that he is her saviour, getting into his bed and holding him in her embrace while emptying her soul to him in lengthy drug induced accounts of the many unhappy periods in her life. The father deserts the family for long period leaving Souleiman “to be the man of the family” while he claims to be on business trips. The story takes us through Souleiman’s gradual discoveries of his parent’s little deceptions.
It also tells of events leading up to the very public inquisitional style execution of their neighbour whose family have formed particularly close ties with Souleiman’s on account of both having to bear the “shame” of being a single-child families. Not only is the neighbour’s execution public but so is a lot of his interrogation which is projected “live” on television screens across the nation for all to see including children and including Souleiman.Paradoxically it is Souleiman’s father’s arrest and subjection to state violence in the form of a serious beating up that eventually reconciles his mother sexually to her husband. Soon after this she sees fit to effectively banish her only child to the care of family friends who have been deported to Egypt. The book strips us bear of any illusions we may nurture that those subjected to high levels of brutality will not themselves become brutal as they continually fail to take opportunities to be either compassionate or heroic. The book is a fascinating exposé of Libya under Gaddafi in which one suspects the violence in its various gruesome forms although written as part of a work of fiction are probably historically accurate – they are simply too horrific and also too possible to be made up! In fact after reading the blurb on the sleeve note giving details of the author’s own life I could not help feeling that this book was more biographical or even autobiographical than fictional or at least more so than most novels.