The main character narrates the story as an adult in beautiful, limpid prose evoking the searing heat and heady fragrances of the Mediterranean: "Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search of shade, those occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the white of everything." Suleiman's family is under menacing scrutiny from Gaddafi's regime because of his father's connection to a dissident faction. His best friend's father disappears in one of the Revolutionary Committee's cars, only to reappear in a grim televised spectacle that mars the boy's innocence forever. Mama is burning father's books as the boy tries to understand the difference between faithfulness and betrayal. He asks questions, but the adults in his life attempt to shield him from truth instead of offering answers.
Nothing makes sense from the boy's perspective, yet the author makes everything clear to the reader -- and this is part of what makes the book work. The other part involves Matar's vivid descriptions of the child's surroundings and emotions.
Suleiman loves his alcoholic mother intensely and is tortured by her burdensome revelations while she's "ill." Forced at age 14 to marry a man she had never met and having become pregnant while her father waited outside with a pistol, awaiting proof of her virginity -- "There will be blood either way," he says -- she pines for a stolen life. Wrestling with guilt and a desert full of demons manufactured by his religion, Suleiman dreams of freeing his mother from her past.
Gleaming with wit and trenchant observations, the book's only flaw is that it could have been longer -- the adult characters could have been further developed.