I’m a sucker for stories about families. This one is especially easy to get lost in. Throw together some siblings and yet-to-be discovered love affairs, add in a dose of grief, maybe a dash of a real estate as plot device (will they or won’t they sell this home that is also a very literal depiction of their heritage?) – I AM SO DOWN FOR THAT BOOK. And by THAT book I mean THIS book – The Arsonists’ City, by Hala Alyan, was a great novel. It was well written, with characters that I truly enjoyed spending time with. This is definitely a thumbs up review.
The main thrust of the plot of that the patriarch of the Nasr family dies in Beirut. His son, Idris, who moved to America with his wife, Mazna, 40 years earlier, wants to sell their ancestral family home. In Beirut, the Nasr family was wealthy enough to employ a maid, whose family lived in a Palestinian refugee camp. This maid has a son, Zakaria, who befriends a young Idris – they grow up as brothers, even after Zakaria’s mother no longer works for the Nasr family. The prologue of the novel details a tragedy that will change the course of Idris and Mazna’s lives – and set in motion a path for their eventual children to reunite in Beirut, to mourn together and to rediscover themselves. The story alternates between timelines – in our current (Covid-free) timeline, Idris and Mazna have three children: Ava, a wife, mother and biologist living in Brooklyn and questioning her marriage to Nate; Mimi, who manages a restaurant in Austin with his best friend by day but dreams of being a rock star while playing random gigs with his aging band (and possibly cheating on his long-term girlfriend) by night; and Naj, the youngest and most free spirited, an ACTUAL rock star, the only member of their family who moved back to Beirut, harboring her own secret about her sexuality. The second timeline focuses on Mazna in the late 70s. Mazna is a Syrian woman who meets Idris through her theater director. Mazna begins making trips back and forth from Damascus to Beirut with Idris, who introduces her to Zakaria. You might be able to tell where this story is going – that won’t make it any less pleasurable to read about.
Each member of the family is complicated, intelligent, and longing for love. Alyan does an amazing job crafting scenes between parents and children, or between siblings, that capture the way that loving families can exasperate like no one else. She perfectly encapsulates that frustration and also the longing to be with each other. Naj, the youngest, writes a song for her oldest sister with a lyric, “You leave every room I enter, you’re June when I’m in winter, you leave every decade I enter” – that haunting lyric really struck me, as it might anyone else who has a 10 year gap with a sibling. Each of the children wants desperately to be close to their parents and each other, even as they build physical distance between themselves.
This love story is also set against the background of the Lebanese civil war (which took me on several Wikipedia side trips as I was reading – our education system provides so little understanding of so many conflicts around the world). I mentioned that Idris brings Mazna from Damascus to Beirut – this wasn’t a small thing to do in the late 1970s. Crossing the border from Syria to Lebanon while they were in the midst of a war was a big deal – and I am still trying to better understand some of the political references in the story. I am woefully uneducated about the impact of the French occupation of Lebanon and Syria. I have heard bits of pieces of news stories about war in Syria, the Arab Spring, but I know so little about the conflicts that have taken place in that part of the world. This is what I love most about reading fiction, what I find most powerful – I love these stories that bring me closer to what other humans have experienced. I love finding what is universal in our stories, and enjoying the specificity of a new (to me) experience.