cover image The Arsonists’ City

The Arsonists’ City

Hala Alyan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (464p) ISBN 978-0-358-12655-3

Poet and novelist Alyan (Salt Houses) illuminates in this exquisite novel the recent history of Lebanon and Syria through the intimate tragedies and betrayals befalling one family. After Lebanese American heart surgeon Idris Nasr’s father dies, Idris feels compelled to sell the family’s ancestral home in Beirut. His Syrian-born wife, Mazna and their three adult children—Ava, Mimi, and Naj—fear he’s making a mistake, and they gather in Beirut to host a memorial and discuss the sale. All of the children harbor jealousies of various kinds and hide secrets from one another and from their parents, but no secrets are bigger or more potentially devastating than those carried by Mazna, and they gradually emerge in flashbacks of her life before she married Idris. The family conflict plays out over the summer of 2019, and the narrative alternates with scenes from Mazna and Idris’s lives in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and in California during the early years of their marriage. “We don’t choose what we belong to,” Mazna considers near the novel’s end, and in Alyan’s sweeping yet intimate narrative, this thought holds true for the characters’ relationships to family and country alike. Tenderly and compassionately told, and populated with complicated and flawed characters, the Nasrs’ story interrogates nostalgia, memory, and the morality of keeping secrets against the backdrop of a landscape and a people in constant flux. Alyan’s debut was striking, and this one’s even better. (Mar.)