Book Review: The Return

Ah a nonfiction read! Why don’t I read more of these?

The Return: Fathers, Sons, and The Land in Between by Hisham Matar caught my eye late last year, but I didn’t see a lot of press about it after its release. When I saw it won a Pulitzer Prize this year I quickly put it back on my list, and finally a couple weeks ago I cracked it open.

This book wasn’t what I expected – I expected a face paced story of returning to a war torn country and being shocked at the condition; interviews and being chased by authorities for getting to close to the truth; or really just some sort of action. Instead I found a peacefully retold story of closure.

Synopsis From The Back Cover:

When Hisham Matar was a nineteen-year-old university student in England, his father was kidnapped. One of the Qaddafi regime’s most prominent opponents in exile, he was help in a secret prison in Libra. Hisham would never see him again. But he never gave up hope that his father might still be alive. Twenty-two years later and after the fall of Qaddafi, Hisham returns with his other and wife to the homeland he never thought he’d go back to again, in search of hte truth behind his father’s disappearance. The Return is the story of what he found there. It is a brilliant portrait of a national and a peope on the cusp of change, a disquieting depiction of the brutal legacy of absolute power, and a universal tale of loss and love and of one family’s life.

What I liked:

The writing was powerful, along the line of what you would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner, I suppose. Just take in this passage about fathers and sons.

They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently, perhaps with a reassuring smile and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder. And the fathers must have known, having once themselves been sons, that the ghostly presence of their hand will remain throughout the years to the end of time, and that no matter what burdens are laid on that shoulder or the number of kisses a lower plants there, perhaps knowingly driven by the secret wish the erase the claim of another, the shoulder will remain forever faithful, remembering that good man’s hand that had usher them into the world. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting, of surrender and rebellion, until a son’s gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows.

Hisham talks in depth about his love of poetry, and that comes across in this book. However, and this is important, the book is very readable. I took the first half slowly because I wanted to soak in the new geography and the new lessons of history that I had never learned before – either in a classroom or from the news, but once I understood the context, I found the language and writing very easy to read (above paragraph excluded).

I also really enjoyed learning. I learned so much about the politics and history of Libya – I had no idea that Libya was an Italian colony for 37 YEARS. And there’s so much other knowledge in this book, that that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

What I Didn’t Like:

To be completely honest, I found the book a little selfserving. I’ve found this in a few books that I’ve read, where an author popular for fiction decides to write a non-fiction memoir – but I haven’t actually read their fiction – and they mention how famous or well known they are. For some reason is really makes me cringe. At any rate, there were sections in this book, that I didn’t think contributed to the plot, about how well known of an author he was in England. This seems to be popular in books like this, so maybe it’s just what you do.

I also, at first, really was thrown off by all the history and the slow speed of the story. There was a moment when I considered putting it down and not picking it back up. I was on a reading roll with a lot of light summer reads, and this one felt like slamming on the brakes. But once I readjusted my expectations, and committed to absorbing as of much of the knowledge as I could, I found I really settled in.


Definitely pick up this book. But be prepared for a thoughtful history lesson, not a fast paced mystery. Sometimes our reactions to things are all about out expectations – and one of the biggest lessons I learned from this book is that good things come in slow and thoughtful package. 🙂

Enjoy! And comment below if you read this book and let me know what you thought!

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Return

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