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The Arsonists' City Hardcover – March 9, 2021
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“The Arsonists’ City delivers all the pleasures of a good old-fashioned saga, but in Alyan’s hands, one family’s tale becomes the story of a nation—Lebanon and Syria, yes, but also the United States. It’s the kind of book we are lucky to have.”—Rumaan Alam
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.
In a novel teeming with wisdom, warmth, and characters born of remarkable human insight, award-winning author Hala Alyan shows us again that “fiction is often the best filter for the real world around us” (NPR).
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“Breathless...Alyan plants the riches of the city with stealthy precision, making the maddening conundrum of Beirut yours...From Lebanon, we visit Syria. We reach back to Palestine. The three nations mirror the imperfect, strained yet inextricable relationship of the Nasr children, now adults...Alyan distilled the fog of displacement and exposes the ways an unfamiliar culture can devour the traits that make us special. And when plumbing the intricacies of race and womanhood, Alyan turns paragraphs into poetry.” — New York Times Book Review
"Feels revolutionary in its freshness...The book has all the elements we expect from a family saga, but set against the backdrop of Lebanon’s long, sad history, the narrative stakes are so much higher." — Entertainment Weekly
"Beautifully illustrating the complexities, fragilities and flaws of families, this heartfelt novel centers siblings struggling to make a decision about the sale of the family home in Beirut as secrets, bonds and the legacies of war come to the fore." — Ms. magazine
“I didn’t think I could love The Arsonists’ City as much as Salt Houses, but I did. It was sharp, thought-provoking. I couldn’t put it down. Hala Alyan is a lyrical force, a much-needed Arab American voice.” — Etaf Rum, New York Times best-selling author of A Woman Is No Man
“I don’t exactly understand how Hala Alyan does it—conjures love, sorrow, betrayal, and joy; goes from being funny and warm to incisive and thoughtful—but as a reader, I’m glad that she does. The Arsonists’ City delivers all the pleasures of a good old-fashioned saga but in Alyan’s hands, one family’s tale becomes the story of a nation—Lebanon and Syria, yes, but also the United States. It’s the kind of book we are lucky to have.” — Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind
"Alyan’s novel brims with life as the Nasr family’s secrets are revealed, pushing past into present. Spanning across the globe, from Palestine to Lebanon and from Syria to America, each character is housed in pockets of social and identity politics, exile, civil war, and everything in between...They must relive their lives, where love rushes to the fore as quickly as heartbreak." — Arab News
"A profound inquiry into what it means to be a family, determine your identity, and hold onto a home — particularly in a world that doesn't always weigh equally the importance of everyone's home, identity, and family...Alyan is virtuosic at portraying the complicated bonds that exist between family members, and she is unafraid to show both the beauty and the despair that come with true intimacy, love, and loss." — Refinery 29
"Simultaneously a sprawling look across five decades at the legacy of unending violence in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Syria, and an intimate, heartfelt portrait of a family gathering at their ancestral home in Beirut." — The OC Register
"Alyan’s varied talents never cease to amaze." — The Millions
"Alyan, author of the award-winning Salt Houses, has written another family saga studded with the same beautiful lyricism...Makes for great fiction." — Lit Hub
"A sweeping family saga that examines the insidious long shadow of war...Alyan brings her talents to examine the ongoing crisis of Palestinian displacement in The Arsonist’s City through deeply imagined characters, place-based descriptions that teem with life, and attention to conflicts from past to present day." — Jacqueline Alnes, Electric Literature
"Alyan, who is a family therapist as well as a poet and novelist, has a gift for depicting the knotty, messy but ultimately resilient bonds of family love. Though The Arsonists’ City lays bare how civil war and brutal violence impact a single family, it is the everyday, sometimes petty squabbles between husband and wife, brother and sister, parent and child that make this novel both memorable and relatable." — BookPage
"This multi-generational story is deeply thought-provoking." — HelloGiggles
“No one knows the human heart like Hala Alyan. Her ability to show its unexpected contours is on full display in The Arsonists' City—a book so gorgeously written I found myself reading sentences aloud just to keep them with me a little longer." — Mira Jacob, author of Good Talk and The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
About the Author
- Publisher : Harper (March 9, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 464 pages
- ISBN-10 : 035812655X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0358126553
- Item Weight : 1.46 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #122,296 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on March 9, 2021
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Lebanese family patriarch and heart surgeon, Idris (now living in California), decides to sell his childhood home after the death of his father. Idris’ far-flung family gathers in Beirut for a belated memorial and to duke it out over the contentious sale of the house. With everyone under one roof for the first time in years, the various complications of the family’s relationships predictably come to a head.
I loved this book so much. I happily ate it up but was also anxious when I was almost finished because I wanted SO MUCH more. Every single character in this book was wonderfully drawn. In most novels with alternating perspectives, I generally look forward to one character’s sections more than others (or occasionally I dread one). That was not the case here, I loved everyone. There is a passage in that describes perfectly how I feel about the book:
“Films make people sad, Mazna is slowly understanding. They remind people of a time that is over or a time they’ve never been part of. Even the happier films, like Sabrina and The Wizard of Oz, sadden her; she will never go to those glossy dinner parties, see those Technicolor skies.”
I am so sad that I will never be a part of this family!
I was not aware the author (Hala Alyan) was a poet, but it makes perfect sense after reading lines like these:
“There was a lyric he almost wrote once but didn’t; he knew it would get him in trouble. It was about Harp’s eyes, how sometimes they looked like the scales of a fish he should’ve returned to the water.”
“Fee looks at her with that grateful expression and Naj remembers rather than notices the freckles spattered across her nose.”
I always love generational trauma as a theme in books, and it is definitely present here. The Body Keeps the Score is a book that taught me so much, and these lines were a beautiful callback to that book for me (and also nods to the author’s psychology background):
“Naj dangles a leg out in front of her, rotates her ankle. She broke it years ago, and it still hurts sometimes. That’s because the body does a lot of remembering for us, her father once told her.”
“What does it mean?” she asks. “My hand on my throat.” “We carry our guilt there,” Kit says. “The guilt of what we’ve done and the guilt of what’s been done to us.”
I wouldn’t change a single thing about this story, but the final revelation from Idris in the last section of the book (no spoilers here) really did break my heart. How different would everyone’s lives have been with a little more honesty? Obviously, it wouldn’t have been the same book. The deceptions were necessary in order to explore the themes of guilt, atonement, and unconditional love. But along with each character, it was a little bittersweet to consider “What if?”
There was one thing that drove me absolutely bonkers, however. Typos. I flipped back and forth between an eGalley and a finished copy of this book, and they were present in both. I think it is really a shame how many times I came across the word Mazda in place of the character name Mazna. It happens at least five times. A simple find and replace would have gone a long way. It seems like it's an unfortunate case of AutoCorrect not recognizing a name and changing it to a similar and common brand name (which is why I’m guessing it did not also happen to names like Idris and Zakaria and Rayan??). There were a few other errors as well, but the Mazna/Mazda error was especially tragic, especially since the errors made it into the finished copy.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy!
While this is over 400 pages, it is an engrossing family saga that sucks you in quickly and is filled with surprises and family secrets. The main characters were all well fleshed out, with chapters getting to know each one intimately. This novel spans the present and forty years prior. The relationships between the three siblings (Ava, Mimi, and Naj) are complex, but it is also obvious that they all love each other very much. The part exploring the beginning of Mazna (the mother’s) relationship with Idris (the father) was an important part of the novel as well.
This novel is set in three countries - the United States, Lebanon, and Syria, with the bulk of the story being outside the US. I appreciated how the story delved into the legacy of the wars in those countries and these effects on those living there. There are parts of this book that are particularly heavy due to this, especially Zakaria’s story.
This was story was told masterfully and beautifully. I have not read Alyan’s previous novel, Salt Houses, but am definitely interested in checking it out now.