Montreal Gazette

A poignant tale of exile

- My Friends Hisham Matar Random House RON CHARLES The Washington Post

This spring marks a grim 40th anniversar­y. On April 17, 1984, after months of tension between Britain and Libya, an angry demonstrat­ion swelled outside the Libyan Embassy in London. Outraged by Moammar Gadhafi's murderous reign back home, dozens of Libyan students chanted slogans against the dictator. Suddenly, from the embassy's windows, shots were fired into the crowd. A 25-year-old British police officer was killed, and 10 demonstrat­ors were wounded.

That carnage burns through Hisham Matar's meditative new novel, My Friends. Matar, the son of Libyan parents, was too young to have been involved in the deadly 1984 protest, but he later settled in London, and much of his writing has explored the terror of living under the threat of Gadhafi, who once clawed after his opponents around the world. Matar's first novel, In the Country of Men, shortliste­d for the Booker Prize, is about a boy in Tripoli trying to fathom his family's rising anxiety. His Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, The Return, explores the political abduction and disappeara­nce of his father.

In My Friends, a Libyan man named Khaled describes how he came to spend his adult life in England, pining for home. Part historical fiction, part cultural reflection, this is a story about the way exile calcifies the heart into an organ of brittle longing.

The story opens in London at King's Cross Station on a fall evening in 2016, after Khaled has said goodbye to his old friend Hosam Zowa. Theirs is a fellowship born of coincidenc­e and now “marked by great affection and loyalty,” he says, “but also absence and suspicion, by a powerful and natural connection and yet an unfathomab­le silence that had always seemed, even when we were side by side, not altogether bridgeable.”

With that conflicted assessment of their relationsh­ip, a mist rises up from these pages, and we're transporte­d back more than 35 years, to Benghazi when Khaled was a teenager. He and his parents are sitting in their kitchen listening to the BBC as the announcer departs from the usual program and reads a daring political parable by a young writer named Hosam Zowa. The next month, the BBC announcer is assassinat­ed in London, and that atrocity helps cement Hosam's story in Khaled's mind, where it will remain until a chance encounter years later.

Matar writes with cool solemnity in phrases that are often epigraphic but never contrived. Such is the muted intensity of his tone that it feels entirely natural for a character to say, in full-throated Rumian splendour: “Where would humanity be without morning? Even the most violent need is calmed by dawn, and you can almost catch the fresh scent of hope.”

In one sense, My Friends takes place entirely during the time it takes Khaled to walk from King 's Cross Station to his flat in Shepherd's Bush, about five miles away. But in another sense, this retrospect­ive story spools out over decades, as Khaled revisits the unlikely events that brought him into contact with the brilliant writer whose words on the radio captured his imaginatio­n as a teenager. The real subject of My Friends emerges: how to live not as an immigrant but as an exile suspended between the desire for home and the fear of home.

Even before he understand­s the dimensions of Khaled's predicamen­t, his father tells him over the phone: “All you need is one or two good friends, that's all. And work, study and be patient.” Here, in these elegantly polished pages, is the test of that parental advice.

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