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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Hisham Matar’s ‘My Friends’ explores the value of friendship

Georgia Bates

Carrying an inexpressible feeling in your chest is not a unique experience. Author Hisham Matar acknowledged this feeling in his life, one that led to writing his latest novel, “My Friends.”

Matar is an exciting new name in contemporary literature with an already extensive repertoire, having four novels and one memoir published. His work, “My Friends,” is making waves on Bookstagram, flooding posts with readers’ to-be-read new release stacks. It was also recently reviewed by Peter C. Baker from the New York Times Book Review as a “fine-grained study of friendship.” 

This past month, Matar witnessed the culmination of his buzzing successes at a lively, well-attended book talk. 

On Jan. 29, in the homey space of the Harvard Bookstore where the biology and social science sections usually reside was a gathering of excited fans pulling out scribbled-in copies of Matar’s previous novels and stuffing backpacks with copies of his newest release. Matar celebrated his latest novel, demonstrating his ability to write about unspoken emotions and the importance of friendship, in conversation with James Wood, a staff writer for The New Yorker and professor of literary criticism at Harvard University. 

“My Friends” was published by Random House in January and follows protagonist Khaled as he embarks on a long walk through London. In doing so, he examines the totality of meaningful friendships and struggles with the sometimes painful idea of returning home.

The audience’s curiosity with pain drove the conversation: the pain of writing and the distinct world of writing in which Matar participates. He chooses to place fictional characters in real historical situations, especially those events that deal closely with his personal experience, as an exile in London. 

In conversation, Matar appeared grounded and accepting of the inevitable unsureness in life. From the first two chapters of his novel, he read, “Perhaps this is the natural way of things that when a friendship comes to an inexplicable end … the change we experience at that moment seems inevitable.”

As a writer, Matar is oddly content with the reality of human nature, how often our emotions are undefinable and difficult to speak or write about in language. He believes it is “impossible to be certain … what is contained in anyone’s chest.” 

In acknowledging this facet of humanity, Matar writes in a style that often focuses on physical signs of expression, shown by physical touch rather than a character’s internal feelings. In “My Friends” his protagonist Khaled “Tapped … on his chest” and he “would once again take note of the distinct pattern of his ribs.”

Many of the themes highlighted in the novel, such as the difficulty of indecision about returning to his home country, are reminiscent of Matar’s personal experience growing up in Tripoli, where his father actively worked in opposition to the Qaddafi regime. Born in 1970, Matar was in primary school when the Libyan government came under the power of the Qaddafi family, shifting Libya to a socialist state. Born in Libya and later sent to boarding school in England at the age of sixteen, Matar experienced first-hand how resistance to Qaddafi’s rule hurt his family and friends. In 1990, Matar’s father disappeared at the hands of Libyan officials and has been missing ever since.  

This profound sense of loss and the settings in the novel are central to Matar’s experience. The novel is primarily set in London, where he attended university and continues to reside: it surrounds the true tragedy of an anti-Qaddafi protest outside the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984, where a crowd of protesters was openly fired on. 

“Two of the people who were shot are people I know very well,” Matar explained, rearticulating the importance of friendship in his personal life. Khaled, the protagonist in “My Friends,” is injured during this fictionalized version of the tragedy, and during his lonesome recovery, far from home, he has a chance encounter with an author significant from his childhood. Penguin Random House writes Khaled “is subsumed into the deepest friendship of his life.”  

Matar learned early on in his life from instances such as these about the importance of relationships, so he holds on tightly to the friends he has made and writes about the value of such meaningful friendships. 

In friendship, “The high[s] and the low[s] … the competitiveness” and the indecision that is inescapable can require understanding and forgiveness even for the people you know best. Matar said that often “what we are feeling and how we express it” are not the same thing. 

In reading “My Friends,” you’ll discover the profound effect that friendships can have on our lives. Matar’s protagonist is an example of an almost impossible struggle with yourself and with friendships, but we should remember that “forgiveness [can be] the most valuable object” we can share.

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    I.M. Reading, Jr.
    Feb 8, 2024 at 8:55 pm

    I realize more than ever how important friendships are, as well as not easily earned or realized. I look forward to reading his journey. Solid review, made me want to read this book.