Minor spoilers (depending on how seriously you take spoilers) ahead
The first-person elegy chronicles the Libyan author’s return to his homeland in 2012 to search for his dissident father Jaballa, who was kidnapped by Egypt’s secret service in Cairo and imprisoned by the Qaddafi regime in Tripoli some 20 years prior.
The Return inevitably examines the political complexities of that brutal regime and a country (and region) coming apart during and in the aftermath of the failure that was the Arab Spring.
Pages upon pages also deal with the Matar family’s background; negotiations for Jaballa’s release at the highest levels between British and Libyan officials; and gruesome descriptions of the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996, which left more than 1,200 dead. The chapters glide through decades, political eras, cities, landscapes and identities.
But at its core, the Return is about a son desperately longing for his absent father. We learn early on that Jaballa may have perished in the Abu Salim massacre, but Matar maintains a stubborn and visceral hope that he could still be alive, refusing to give up the search into his whereabouts.
As such, we’re taken on something of a winding and emotionally gruelling investigation with the writer, one that culminates in a surreal and brilliantly depicted meeting between Matar and Saif Qaddafi at a London coffee shop.
The author’s grief is palpable, and never quite resolved. Matar’s contextualisation of that grief — unique in its circumstances but universal in essence — is nothing short of masterful. Taken in the wider context of Matar’s works (Anatomy of a Disappearance; in the Country of Men), it’s almost as if he was building up to precisely this moment.
The Return is a one or two-sitting kind of novel. Not that I need to – but I can’t recommend it enough. It’s been months since I first read the book, but parts of it haunt me to this day.
I’ve contended for a long while now that Matar is one of the great Arab authors of our time. Nay, authors of our time.
Buy the Return here.