Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Art of the Novella Challenge: The Illusion of Return, by Samir El-Youssef


"It was the last night the four of us were together."


The line "It was the last night the four of us were together" echoes like a drum beat through this slow-moving, thoughtful story. The last night the four Palestinian friends- the narrator (nameless), Ali, Maher and George- were together started in a café in Israeli-occupied Lebanon. They met to talk about life, philosophy, politics, all the big-picture things young people love to talk about over coffee and cigarettes. They avoided private pains- the death of a sister, of a brother, the failure of a family and looming murder of one of their own- that come as consequences of the very politics they discussed with such fervor.

The Illusion of Return is the story about a man in middle age revisiting memories of his youth in Lebanon from the vantage point of his new life in the United Kingdom and the day he visits with Ali. The narrative alternates between the day of his visit with Ali at Heathrow Airport and the friends' last night together. Secrets are shared that night; some more are shared years later, while others are kept. The narrator seeks validation from Ali, and at the same time fears what meeting him again will mean, and what it will not.

Can you go home again? What does that mean in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or in the context of the life of an individual? Does the concept of return belong to one people, or several, or to no one? What does home mean? Does it mean your family? What if your family has been destroyed, or has destroyed itself through secrets and shame?

El-Youssef tackles some difficult questions in his beautifully written, challenging novella that is nonetheless a lovely gem of a book. For all the discussion of politics, it struck me as not particularly a political story but one about how individual lives are lost- and found- as larger-scale events and movements wash over them, a theme with universal relevance. And he's written some wonderful characters, like the narrator who struggles so much and especially Ali, who seems so glib at first but whose own life has been mired in the same struggle as the narrator's. It's just that he's found a way to find peace, and to offer it up to his friend.

This is the fourth novella I've read for the Art of the Novella Challenge, hosted by Frances at NonsuchBook. Visit the Melville House website here, and buy some of their wonderful books from your local independent bookstore today!

Links to my other Art of the Novella reviews:
The North of God, by Steve Stern
Benito Cereno, by Herman Melville
Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance, by Sholem Aleichem