Thanks so much to Bookish First and HMH (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) for the advanced copy of The Arsonists’ City in exchange for an honest review! All opinions are my own.
This is an extremely rich and nuanced look into family, life, heritage, and identity, but I struggled with whether or not to feature this one on the blog. I try really hard to stick to cleaner content these days and there are more than a few mature sexual situations & adultery in this one, but there’s also a discourse on humanity, immigration, and reconciliation that as a 30-something, I could appreciate, and hey, we are all adults here.
- Title: The Arsonists’ City
- Author: Hala Alyan
- Publisher & Release: HMH, 03/09/21
- Length: 464 pages
- Rate & Recommend: 🌟🌟🌟 yes for fans of the genre
Here is the synopsis from GoodReads:
A rich family story, a personal look at the legacy of war in the Middle East, and an indelible rendering of how we hold on to the people and places we call home
The Nasr family is spread across the globe—Beirut, Brooklyn, Austin, the California desert. A Syrian mother, a Lebanese father, and three American children: all have lived a life of migration. Still, they’ve always had their ancestral home in Beirut—a constant touchstone—and the complicated, messy family love that binds them. But following his father’s recent death, Idris, the family’s new patriarch, has decided to sell.
The decision brings the family to Beirut, where everyone unites against Idris in a fight to save the house. They all have secrets—lost loves, bitter jealousies, abandoned passions, deep-set shame—that distance has helped smother. But in a city smoldering with the legacy of war, an ongoing flow of refugees, religious tension, and political protest, those secrets ignite, imperiling the fragile ties that hold this family together.
I was originally interested in this book because allegedly my grandfather was a random Syrian exchange student’s brother, and I sometimes feel interested in Syrian books assuming he came from the actual motherland.
So let’s just discuss content first because it’ s the first thing that anyone reading the book encounters. A man is murdered in the prologue, and it sets the whole book up to be super dramatic and interesting and I am thinking “oh boy this is going to be good!!” Then the next thing you know one of the characters is on her stomach thinking about a deflated condom, like, shit. So now I have to remember her depressing sex life throughout the rest of the book, and it’s a theme through all the characters’ chapters, including a heavy discussion of the gay sibling’s sexuality, which is tied to Beirut’s youth culture in general somehow. Between that and pretty much everyone either contemplating or committing adultery at some point, I am like… Well sex is not what I want to read, and it’s depressing.
But it’s part of life, which along with death, are major themes of the book. Idris and Mazna immigrated to America on asylum when he started his surgical residency, leaving his ancestral house behind. Years later once Idris’ father dies and the house is empty of family he decides to sell it – which brings the scattered family all back together. In Beirut. For one very enlightening summer.
Each of the three siblings and Mazna the mother, were the chapter points of view. This sorted into the present (the kids) and past (Mazna). It is always interesting to see people struggle bus through their 30s in slice of life style, because that’s me, but a big part of me just didn’t care. Mazna’s story was legitimately interesting with her life between Damascus and Beirut, and seeing the war, plus being brown in America once they immigrated. None of the characters were really likeable for me though, like I wanted to like Mazna but she’s so stubborn and then hooked up with that film guy, plus she took Idris (a heart surgeon) for a total moron.
The book spent a LOT of time building each character. It is kind of the point of the book, but some parts involving the siblings were just boring to me. I didn’t care about Marwan’s band or Ava’s cheating husband, or even Naj, even though she had the most interesting life by far it was all flings and drugs and music. Once they got to Beirut and all the secrets started coming out, it got more interesting.
There were so many side characters mentioned too that I just couldn’t keep track… Many of them not horribly relevant but still. Also I liked Alyan’s writing style and language use overall but occasionally just lost her train of thought. She would get philosophical/ profound at times and drift off into left field to the point where I had no idea where the train of thought ended up.
One thing that I thought Alyan did really well was setting – she gave a good feel for the sights and smells and weather, food, even the knick knacks in rooms, plus the atmosphere in general.
I can relate a lot of the book to real life though – for example – being entitled to our secrets, and maybe not needing to know all of our parent’s secrets. Also learning that we (as adults) are maybe a little bit more like them than we like to admit.
I know this is a book that a lot of people are loving for Alyan’s fantastic writing style and the story of love, loss, immigration, and familial reconciliation that she tells, and I don’t blame them at all. I think fans of the genre will love this. I just found it to be a 12 day long snooze fest when the kids were featured and I was limited to one rather long chapter at a time.
Overall: definitely recommend for fans of family dramas, sagas, and character based books!