My Friends: A Novel

Image of My Friends: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 9, 2024
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“As always, Matar’s writing is elegant and metaphorically rich, filled with carefully drawn portraits of Khaled and his intelligent, highly articulate friends and dramatic renderings of their intense conversations.”

Author Hisham Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents who took their children back to the turbulent North African country during Gaddafi’s tyrannical regime. His father, an outspoken critic of the regime, was kidnapped in Cairo and murdered by Gadaffi’s secret police. Matar’s adolescence was one of exile under assumed names. England ultimately became his home. His prize-winning memoir, The Returned, and most of his fiction are about the experience of exile for people with strong spiritual ties to their native land.

Told in the first person as Khaled, a middle-aged Libyan exile walks around London contemplating his past, My Friends, Matar’s latest totally absorbing novel, chronicles 30 years of Khaled’s life as he experiences the cruelty of the Gaddafi regime, the anguish of exile and separation from his family, and the challenge of making a new life for himself.

Khaled leaves his homeland to study at Edinburgh University, but his life changes when he and his friend Mustafa go down to London and, on an impulse, decide to join a protest at the Libyan Embassy. Khaled is seriously wounded when government agents inside the building shoot machine guns at the crowd. From that moment, he, an 18 year old, becomes a marked man who cannot return to his country. Nor can he endanger his family by communicating honestly about what happened and how lost he felt, “an eighteen-year-old castaway, stranded in a foreign city where he knew no one and can be of little use to himself.”

Khaled is given asylum in the United Kingdom and begins structuring a limited life in London that gives him a sense of security. He moves into a small bedsit in the Shepherd’s Bush area and makes the humble apartment his home for over three decades. Eventually he gets a job as a schoolteacher. Even when his best friends go back to Libya to fight during the Arab Spring, Khaled remains in London, “The life I have made for myself is held together by a delicate balance. I must hold on to it with both hands.”

Khaled’s only ties to Libya are through his friends, particularly his university friend and companion at the protest, the passionate Mustafa, and, later, the Libyan author Hosam Zawa. Since his youth, Khaled has been fascinated by one of Zawa’s short stories about a man who is slowly eaten by a cat. For a long time, the man is passive as the cat slowly devours parts of his body, but finally gets the courage to shout “no” when the cat has only the head left to eat. The story, an allegory of Libya under a brutal dictatorship, is also a call for resistance. On a trip to Paris, Khaled realizes that the desk clerk at his hotel is Zawa, who has given up writing. He and Zawa become close friends and neighbors in London.

When the Arab Spring begins, Mustafa and Zawa go back to Libya and become heroes in the fight against the Gaddafi regime. Khaled remains in London, a man constantly grieving for his home country and missing his family, but needing the safety of his highly circumscribed life. Khaled remains a kind of Prufrock character, surviving by keeping his world small and controllable. His friend tells him that it is “as foolish to think that we are free of history as it would be of gravity,” yet after his traumatic injury Khaled tries to protect himself from involvement in that history. Ultimately, he only experiences the radical changes in his homeland vicariously through the communications from friends. In the background of the novel is the story of a country going through turbulent change.   

As always, Matar’s writing is elegant and metaphorically rich, filled with carefully drawn portraits of Khaled and his intelligent, highly articulate friends and dramatic renderings of their intense conversations. Above all, there is the force of powerful emotions: outrage, grief, love. My Friends is a major literary accomplishment.