As reckonings-up go, this is a sombre ledger; I never stopped wishing that this book had not needed to be written, that the experiences that gave birth to it had not happened. But Matar has turned it into something exquisite, too. Shafts of light will come in, and sometimes they are dazzling. A son massages his beloved father’s feet. A mother whispers a line from a smuggled letter. A boy makes a new friend in an English boarding school. A man embraces an uncle, feeling the bones of his 'prison body.' A family, big and fond, is reunited over nuts, pastries and sweet tea. Matar has a reserve that only makes his way with intimacy all the more moving. Critics like to call books unflinching but the point about this one is that its author flinches all the time; it’s in his turning away that we feel his unfathomable sorrow, not in those moments when he describes, as he sometimes must, all the unspeakable ways in which the regime liked to torture its prisoners; the great pile of bloodied watches collected by the guards after the Abu Salim massacre.
Here, in The Return, [Matar] writes with both a novelist’s eye for physical and emotional detail, and a reporter’s tactile sense of place and time. The prose is precise, economical, chiseled; the narrative elliptical, almost musical, cutting back and forth in time between the near present, Mr. Matar’s childhood memories of growing up in Libya, and pieced-together accounts of his father’s work as an opposition leader and his imprisonment. The Return is, at once, a suspenseful detective story about a writer investigating his father’s fate at the hands of a brutal dictatorship, and a son’s efforts to come to terms with his father’s ghost, who has haunted more than half his life by his absence.
Out of his protracted torment Matar has forged a memoir that in its nuance and nobility bears unforgettable witness to love, to courage and to humanity. The Return is also a subtle and nimble work of art. It shifts elegantly between past and present, between dialogue and soliloquy, between urgent, even suspenseful action and probing meditations on exile, grief and loss...The Return deserves a place in the exalted company of those who 'hope against hope' — as Nadezhda Mandelstam called her great testimony of the loss of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, to Stalin’s gulag.