The Arsonists' City by Hala Alyan
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: March 9, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Fiction, Literary
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From the nucleus of one family, The Arsonists’ City is a novel that spins out between decades and countries. Idris and Mazna met in the 1970s. He lived in Beirut and was studying to be a doctor and she was a young actress living with her family in Damascus. Decades later they are settled in America with three grown children. The death of Idris’s father means he’s inherited the family home. The situation is a fraught one and necessitates a return to Beirut, a place that holds very different meanings for each of the family members.
The Beirut home, having been in the family for generations, is the centrifugal force in The Arsonists’ City. It’s where Mazna visited to be with Idris and his friends, escaping the boredom of Damascus. Yet, Idris, now a heart surgeon, has decided the house must be sold, despite the relatives he still has living there. Their daughter, Naj, who is a famous musician in the Middle East and Europe, even lives in the city. For her siblings, returning is a matter of duty as neither Ava or her brother, Mimi, feel any ties to the place. A rock musician whose career never took off and now flounders on the edges of embarrassing, Mimi resents his baby sister’s success. Ava, the dutiful oldest child, goes along for her mother’s sake, although she’s dealing with fissures in her marriage.
This is a rough template of The Arsonists’ City because the novel’s grace lies in the details. Author Hala Alyan brings seemingly disparate elements together into a rich and satisfying whole. There is a prologue in which an unnamed man is murdered in one of Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps, followed in the first chapter with a graphic sex scene between Ava and her husband. The effect of moving so quickly between the moment of death and that of intimacy sets the tone for the entire novel. This is the reality of the Middle East. There is no separating the personal from the political. Upon arriving back in Lebanon Ava realizes that this is a
…godforsaken country where even the birds warred with each other.
In this way, the larger tragedy of decades of displacement and discrimination of the Palestinians is overlaid on the smaller dynamics of siblings, spouses, and the individual. The Arsonists’ City is at once one family’s story with hidden truths, dreams dashed, and secrets kept and an immersion into the impact of regional politics and religion. Alyan alchemizes the intimate with the global for a novel that is moving and thought-provoking.
Additional outstanding fiction set in the Middle East: Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa and Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
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*I received a free copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in exchange for an honest review.*