The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar

There is a moment when you realise that you and your parent are not the same person, and it usually occurs when you are both consumed by a similar passion.
— Hisham Matar, The Return

Hisham Matar’s Pulitzer-winning memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between expends no extra word to articulate and enroll the reader in Matar’s quest to find out what happened to his father, captured and imprisoned in 1990 because of his resistance to Libya under Gaddafi. Matar shares his balance between grief and hope with all that remains unknown in his father’s disappearance, bringing you with him on his chase for truth.Did he die in Abu Salim prison with over a thousand others? Or was he moved to another prison? Did his life continue? Matar plunges into the very same ‘bottomless abyss’ into which his father fell, using his writing to pull both himself and the reader out, accepting that, even in the light of day, the truth remains unclear.

Not knowing when my father ceased to exist has further complicated the boundary between life and death... As Aristotle writes, ‘The theory that the void exists involves the existence of place: for one would define void as place bereft of body’. He says nothing of time here, and time is surely part of it all, of how we try to accommodate the absence. Perhaps this is why, in countless cultures, people in mourning rock or sway from side to side - not only to recall infancy and the mother’s heartbeat, but to keep time. Only time can hope to fill the void.
— Hisham Matar, The Return

In 239 pages, you journey through Matar’s childhood between Tripoli and Cairo, large funds allowing their family to live well, to send him to boarding school under a false name and to support a resistance from abroad. You go further back in time to know the legacy of Matar’s father and grandfather, two men so great that no wonder there is a book. And what a legacy for Matar to carry on; this is written in the pages as well. Years dedicated to learning the fate of his father while also fighting to have his uncles and cousins released from prison after two decades of incarceration, and simultaneously growing his international profile as a writer. He would make Libya proud, if he weren’t so vocally against the leadership and for knowledge and human rights.

This memoir brings you into the throws of political violence, and how both Matar and his father carved a place for themselves in the resistance, through action, through words and through perseverance. What began in 2013 as a New Yorker article has grown into a heartfelt saga. And a saga not because it is a long, drawn-out story, but because it tells a story across generations of a family’s patriotism in the face of oppression.

Finally, this memoir traverses 19th century Libya through to 2011, when Matar returns to his home country for the first time since he was a boy. But it leaves off at an equally interesting place – a hiccup in time, a taste of peace, before the civil war that began in 2014. I will be thinking of Matar’s family, and I cross my fingers for another book to resume where we left off.