The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

‘Tonight the man will die.’

Two generations of a family: a Syrian mother, a Lebanese father and three children.  The Nasr family are split between Beirut and the USA, but their father’s ancestral home in Beirut has anchored them.  When his father dies, Idris Nasr decides to sell the house.  His wife Mazna insists that the family reunite in Beirut.  She opposes the sale and wants son Mimi (Marwan) and daughter Ava to travel to Beirut, where their sister Naj lives, to try to save the house.

‘Grief will make you do crazy things.’

Everyone does as Mazna requests (who could resist the pressure she applies?), and we learn about the past, about the secrets that each holds close.  Typical family tensions are underlined (and relationships sometimes undermined) by the past, by war, religious differences, and regrets.

We learn of Mazna’s dreams and disappointments, of a life straddling two cultures and being unable to settle completely in either.  The pace is slow, each character’s story unfolds gradually.  Beirut is not the same city that Idris and Mazna left and, without their grandfather, it holds different memories for Ava and Mimi.  Naj lives in Beirut and her life is complicated.

Through these characters, we see the dislocation caused by war and by migration, and the disconnect between dreams and reality.  Ms Alyan brings her characters to life: flawed and vulnerable as they map their own relationships and spaces.

‘The sun has set now, and whatever light is left is dying, leaving to be reclaimed tomorrow.’

I loved this novel.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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