The Novel By Hisham Matar That Explores What It Feels To Know The Person You Love Is Never Coming Back

In this memoir, the author decides to go back to the place where he was born to find out why his father disappeared.

We usually think of grief as something personal, something that belongs to us and our particular lives, never to the world or to history. But our social context and the politics of the country we live in affect us on an intimate level. That’s why the only way to bring big tragedies closer is by looking at them through the stories of individual people. Only human experience makes the statistics feel real. The Return, an award-winning memoir written by Hisham Matar, is one of those stories...


Hisham Matar fled with his family from Lybia in 1979. However, in 1990, his father, Jaballa, was kidnapped and sent to prison by people who worked for the country's dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi. Decades later, the author decided to return to the land where he was born to find out what happened to his father. He returned to find answers, to deal with his father’s absence, but he found empty prison cells. No trails, only stories.

 Image by Laura Makabresku

The Return mainly deals with the guilt the author experienced while living his daily life knowing his father wasn't there. He deals with the haunting presence of his past after he and his family found a better place to live in. Throughout the book, he portrays the discomfort that accompanies every moment of peace in a new country, because those moments of brief well-being highlight the shadow of an uncomfortable reality that's happening somewhere else. This memoir is about that feeling, and what you can do to get rid of it, as well as how to use your privileged situation to make things a little better, at least for yourself.


Image by Laura Makabresku

The memories that are gathered in this book are not only Matar's memories, but also the memories of his relatives, his father's friends, and people who suffered the difficulties and torments of life under a dictatorship. We learn about the many ways in which communication was blocked and disrupted, and the multiple ways Jaballa Matar might have died. Before his disappearance, political supporters smuggled his letters out of prison and delivered them to his family, risking their lives while doing it. After that, Matar had to speculate, imagining that his father had died in a massacre that killed over 1,000 people in 1996, that he had been tortured to death in the middle of an interrogation, or that he had escaped.

Image by Laura Makabresku


We're so used to hearing the voices of the people we love, so we can barely imagine what it would feel like to forget their sound, their laughter. Hisham Matar had to deal with that pain, as well as the intriguing possibility of finding his father again, perhaps changed or destroyed by the harsh life in prison. This uncertainty creates a constant grief without closure. Because if we think about it, how do we come to terms with an inconclusive ending? How do we recover from something that is so elusive?

How do we deal with the ghosts and the empty seats?


The narrative of this book brilliantly dissolves the lines between history, politics, and art. It works, in part, like a detective story that plays with time, memory, and imagination. But more importantly, we obtain intimate and detailed insights about a conflict that afflicted a country for decades, as well as a moving account of the author's excursion into and out of his pain.


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Images by Laura Makabresku