I am so excited today to be hosting a guest review as part of #30Authors — an event started by Allison at The Book Wheel, which connects readers, bloggers, and authors. During #30Authors, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community.
It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit #30Authors on The Book Wheel, or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.
I first learned about #30Authors last year, when I met Allison during our weekend adventure in Big Sur with the folks at Buick. Since then, we’ve kept in touch (thank you, Internet!) and will often chat about all-things blogging. I was honored when she asked me to participate in this year’s #30Authors, and I hope this can become a new annual tradition for us here at Novel Novice!
Today’s post features a review of The Return by Hisham Matar, from author Keija Parssinen. More about Keija and her book below, but here is more about The Return and her review.
When he was twelve, Matar and his family went into political exile. Eight years later Matar’s father, a former diplomat and military man turned brave political dissident, was kidnapped from the streets of Cairo by the Libyan government and is believed to have been held in the regime’s most notorious prison.
Now, the prisons are empty and little hope remains that Jaballa Matar will be found alive. Yet, as the author writes, hope is “persistent and cunning.”
This book is a profoundly moving family memoir, a brilliant and affecting portrait of a country and a people on the cusp of immense change, and a disturbing and timeless depiction of the monstrous nature of absolute power.
I’ve followed Hisham Matar’s career closely since reading his Booker-prize finalist debut novel, In the Country of Men, a slim, haunting book narrated by a twelve year-old Libyan boy whose family is fractured when his activist father is disappeared by Qaddafi’s henchmen. Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, also centers on a son grappling with a father’s disappearance. In these works, the novelist’s preoccupations are clear, and rooted in the central tragedy of his life: his father’s kidnapping and subsequent disappearance into the maze of Qaddafi’s prisons. Even today, after the crumbling of the Qaddafi regime, Jaballa Matar’s fate remains a mystery.
Hisham Matar has lived most of his life in exile from his Libyan homeland, and the ache of that prolonged estrangement infuses In the Country of Men with melancholy, so that even the simplest act of enjoying the landscape, such as when the protagonist swims in the Mediterranean, becomes laden with meaning. It’s not that Matar writes with nostalgia; it’s that, as an exile, he can only write about the country of his childhood through the lens of loss.
While Matar’s novels offer powerful examinations of the fallout from the violent and early loss of a father, they are narrow in their scope, shining a narrative spotlight on short periods of their young protagonists’ lives—childhood and adolescence. By contrast, the writer’s newly-released memoir The Return yields a more complete and devastating portrait of what happens to a family in the wake of such a blow.
Jaballa Matar was not just any dissident; he used his personal fortune to raise and train an army to try and combat Qaddafi. He was a proud, powerful man of strong convictions who was able to rally other citizens to his vision. In prison, he tells younger men to use his name as protection by blaming him for whatever it is they are accused of doing. In a letter smuggled out of prison and delivered to his family, he states, “My forehead does not know how to bow.”
Matar writes most poignantly about wrestling with the uncertainty surrounding his father’s circumstances, quoting the words of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus:
“I wish at least I had some happy man
as father, growing old in his own house —
but unknown death and silence are the fate
of him… ,
It is the unknown that propels much of the book’s actions, including the return referenced by the title, when Matar and his mother make the journey home to Libya after Qaddafi’s fall. They have been preceded by Matar’s brother, who re-entered the country during the Arab Spring to aid in the fight against the regime.
In one of the most resonant scenes of the book, Matar stands inside Abu Salim prison where his father was held, examining the list of names of the hundreds of men killed in a 1996 prison massacre. As he tears up, he resents what he perceives as pity from the woman overseeing visitors to the prison. But he soon learns that she lost someone in the massacre, and understands that her concern comes from a place not only of compassion, but of mutual suffering.
We feel, in the pages of The Return, Matar’s resistance to the reader’s pity; the prose is clear-eyed and precise, though it relays a lifetime’s worth of pain. Matar’s story need not rely on embellishment or sentimentality for its power. The facts themselves are enough to wreck us. In the end, the book’s artistry lies in its restraint, and in its temporal delivery, which is circular and recursive, just as Matar’s journey toward the truth has been. The Return is the kind of book—wise, cool-headed, and wrenching—that can only be written by someone who has suffered greatly, but has had years to process and reflect on that suffering. The result is a masterful memoir and a true work of art.
Keija Parssinen is the author of THE RUINS OF US, which won a Michener-Copernicus award, and THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS, which received an Alex Award from the American Library Assocation. She is a graduate of Princeton University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote fellow. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tulsa and Director of the Cedar Crest College Pan-European MFA program. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband and son.