My Friends, Hisham Matar, Viking, £18.99  

Libyan schoolteacher Khaled watches his old friend Hosam take the train from St Pancras to Paris, from where he is embarking for the USA. Between saying goodbye – possibly, he thinks, for the last time – and walking back to his flat in Shepherd’s Bush, he recounts this novel.

His return home takes only a couple of hours, but the idea of home and return are among the book’s most powerful themes, neither to be taken for granted, and each freighted with meaning. Their unravelling, as Khaled grows from boy to man, stretches across almost three decades.

As a teenager in 1983, in his first term at the University of Edinburgh, Khaled made friends with another Libyan, Mustafa. They were freer spirits than other Libyans in their circle, and recognised that they held views that would be seen as reprehensible, or worse, by their fellow-countrymen. By this point, the Gaddafi  dictatorship, and its network of spies, was gathering momentum.  

Initially Edinburgh represented a fresh start. Home of Khaled’s favourite writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, it was far distant from the repressive regime where people like Khaled’s beloved father, a schoolteacher, had learned to keep his head down and his contempt hidden.

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The affection and respect of a son for his father is one of the brightest threads in this book: “The talented historian who managed to remain independent, part of that silent army that exists in every country, made up of individuals who had come to the conclusion that they live among unreasonable compatriots and they must, like grown-ups in a playground, endure the chaos until the bell rings, resigned to the fact that this may come long after they are gone.”

For Khaled, Edinburgh offered the chance to study English under an academic whose work on the complexities of translation, and the gaps and creative interpretation it involves, had inspired him.  What follows, in this delicately unfurled and deeply moving novel, is also about translation of a kind: the gulf that represents the exile between homeland and loved ones, and how to understand what is going on there, as well as within oneself.

In an impetuous mood, urged on by Mustafa, Khaled joined a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London. It was April 1984. Who can forget the images of the policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, who was killed when members of the embassy opened fire on the crowd with a machine gun?  

The fictional Khaled and Mustafa are also shot, Khaled so seriously it is thought he will die. Treated in a London hospital, after some weeks he joins the ward where the other Libyan students are recovering, all under assumed names, and with a guard on the door to protect them from further attack. 

“Violence demands translation,” thinks Khaled. “I will never have the words to explain what it is like to be shot, to lose the ability to return home or to give up on everything I expected my life to be”. 

The Herald: Protests in LibyaProtests in Libya (Image: free)

Now an enemy of the state, he has cut himself off from his family and his country. He and Mustafa are effectively stranded, since going back to Edinburgh is not an option. From now, aged 18, they must make their way in the world, rudderless and alone.  

My Friends is Khaled’s account of what happens in the years between then and the novel’s opening when, as a fifty-something, he has a settled life in London, and the events of the Libyan Revolution during the Arab Spring of 2011, have changed the face of his homeland. 

Emotionally, however, he remains fragile and dislocated, and it is this inner landscape that Hisham Matar convincingly – at times with seeming banality, at others with drama and passion – so memorably conveys. 

Those familiar with Matar’s work will know that exile, and fathers and sons, are his subjects. His most recent book was the memoir The Return, in which he describes his return to Libya to find out what happened to his father. Forced into exile for his dissident views, obliging his sons to take new names, Matar’s father had been abducted in Cairo in 1990, and imprisoned in Libya. His fate remains unknown. That book’s subtitle, Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, could stand  as a guide to much of Matar’s work, not least this new novel.

The friends of the title are Mustafa, who makes a life as an estate agent in London, and the writer Hosam Zowa, one of whose surreal political stories Khaled had heard on the radio as an impressionable schoolboy. While Khaled remains embedded in London, the other men ultimately pursue a very different course, challenging his beliefs, and his very nature.

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As its title suggests, the novel’s heart lies in the complicated but enduring relationship between Khaled, Mustafa and Hosam, whose friendship in part recompenses them for everything they lack.  “Friend,” says Hosam, who is given to pontificating. “What a word. Most use it about those they hardly know. When it is a wondrous thing.”

In his unhurried, understated, almost meandering way, Matar conveys what it means to be in exile, and the toll it takes. He also captures the gratitude someone uprooted feels for the place where they make a second home: “London is a city of shadows, a city made for shadows, for people like me who can be here a lifetime yet remain as invisible as ghosts.”

Bringing the shocking events of 1984 back into the fore, and showing the malevolent reach of Gaddafi’s murderous regime, which stretched far beyond Libya’s borders, this is a heartfelt, sober and captivating exploration of loss: of family, of connection, of country and, to a degree, of self: “All the while the hourglass emptied. And with each day we became a little less Arab and a little more Anglo, like a wall gradually losing its colour to the weather.”  It is also a hymn to the rewards of friendship, and the anchor it provides when everything else is adrift.