Hala Alyan’s first book THE SALT HOUSES was pretty wonderful. When I heard about this new novel I was thrilled. And, let me just tell you that it is even better…In fact, I’m just going to put it out there: THE ARSONISTS’ CITY is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Period.
I’ve long been interested in the area of the world that houses Beirut and Syria. Such beautiful places. Places I’ve never visited and most likely never will. But I am fascinated by the history and the wars and the people. Alyan brings all this vividly to life through her extremely moving story of a Lebanonese/Syrian family and their journey for truth and unity.
The powerful beginning to THE ARSONISTS’ CITY will blow you away. The first sentence is: “Tonight the man will die.” We’re in Beirut and the year is 1978. The man is beautiful and young and his name is Zakaria. He’s slaughtered in a revenge killing. Of course I was anxious to know all about him and why this had happened. So we move on to Part 1.
Now the story moves forward forty years. We meet Idris and Mazna who now live in California where Idris is a heart surgeon, and their three children. Ava is the oldest and is about to turn forty. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children. Mimi is the middle child, a son, and he lives in Austin, Texas with his girlfriend. Naj is the youngest and is a rock star in Beirut, with a secret she’s keeping from her family. Alyan manages to go extremely deep into each character until you are able to feel their pain and you know who they are.
The slow burn that simmers constantly just under the radar is what makes this family saga such a monster of a tale. I watched Mazna become enlightened when she visited Lebanon and Idris’s home for the first time. Mazna came from a poor family in Syria. There is a scene in the Lebanese family home in Ain Al Mraiseh, an upscale neighborhood near the sea, where Mazna locks herself in one of the bathrooms: “Once she locks the door, she takes one of the shell-shaped soaps wrapped in French paper and slips it into her pocket. She’ll use it every day back home, scrubbing her skin with it until only a sliver remains; the smell is floral and rich. ” This is like nothing she’s ever experienced.
Mazna’s relationship with Idris is complicated to say the least. What happens before they are married presses on your heart like a bull sitting on your chest. Alyan masterfully and slowly shows the reader young love at it’s most vulnerable. It’s heart-wrenching.
The relationships between the siblings is mostly strained at best. Once they all meet in Beirut, we realize just how thin the lines of communication have been all the years they’ve been apart living their own lives. We begin to understand why Mazna has become the almost shrew-like woman she is depicted as. And we get closer and closer to finding out the underlying secret she’s been keeping for forty years. And it’s a BIG one.
The writing is lyrical and simply wonderful. I was totally transported to the exotic and troubling city of Beirut in all its complexities. Take note: this is not a book about war. It’s not just about politics, but it does deal with issues of race, caste, class, colonialism and tribalism. Let’s face it, families are all complicated.
As the story nears the end, you’ll become more and more anxious. I was pretty sure I saw what was coming. The unraveling makes my heart hurt even as I write this. When I finished the book I was relieved I was alone and had the time to sit and reflect. I am still reflecting. Something you are going to want to do is return to the beginning of the book and reread that passage. I slowly decided that this is such an important book, such a wonderful story, and I knew I wanted to tell everyone to READ it. It’s truly one of the most important and best books I’ve ever read.
Hala Alyan is a clinical psychologist and poet living in Brooklyn with her husband. Her writing is simply divine.
My finished copy of THE ARSONISTS’ CITY by Hala Alyan arrived from the publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This is in exchange for an honest review. Honestly, it truly is one of the best books I’ve ever read and I totally LOVED it.
We have copies of THE ARSONISTS’ CITY at Copperfish Books where they are discounted 20%. I would love nothing better than to put one in your reading hands. Come on up. I’ll actually be working the store from 11-2 today. I’d love to see you.