Book Review: The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

The Arsonists’ City – Hala Alyan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021)

I received an Advanced Readers’ Copy of this as book from the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own. This book will be available for purchase March 9, 2021.

A family spread out across the globe is reunited in Beirut when their patriarch declares his intention to sell the family home. Idris and Mazna and their three children Ava, Mimi, and Naj gather together. Idris is originally from Beirut, Mazna from Damascus; they have lived in California since early in their marriage, their children now spread across the world with Naj having returned to Beirut – a reverse migration – where she has become a successful musician.

The family is close but separated. They are in frequent contact with each other but rarely together. The history between them – both as a whole and individually – is fragmented and full of things unsaid. The story moves between each of these five characters as well as through the years. The present day sections alternate between the three adult children, each with their own relationship and career struggles, while the sections in the past primarily zoom in on Mazna and a secret that she has been keeping for years.

The Arsonists’ City spends quite a bit of time laying the groundwork, introducing characters and backgrounds before dipping into the past and the beginnings of Idris and Mazna’s relationship. While there is definite conflict in the present day timeline, the main drama all comes from the past. This isn’t to say that the present day sections aren’t interesting. The interest there lies in the adult children reconnecting as they learn the truth about their own family history. There is also interest in the developing dynamics between the three siblings. Both Ava and Mimi are struggling in their long-term relationships; Mimi’s fiancee has joined the family trip to Beirut while Ava’s husband has stayed home. Both are white Americans. Mimi has been plugging away for years with his unsuccessful band while his younger sister, Naj, has become hugely successful with her own music in the Middle East and Europe.

Where Alyan really shines though is in her writing of place. The sections of the novel set in Beirut and Damascus are where the novel comes alive, particularly in the past. When Mazna and Idris are young, in the late 1960s, Beirut is at war while Damascus is a thriving city. Mazna sneaks across the border into Beirut with friends, exposed for the first time both to greater wealth and greater danger. In the present day, the roles of the cities seem reversed, with refugees from Syria moving into and through Lebanon. The links between these two countries were clearer to me than ever before. I’ve read a few books involving Syria in recent years but Lebanon is largely unknown to me. It did feel strange to read a story about Beirut without any reference to the horrifying explosion that took place there in 2020 but of course, Alyan’s novel was written before these events.

As I was finishing The Arsonists’ City, I realized that Alyan’s previous novel Salt Houses has been on my TBR for some time and I borrowed it from the library, eager for more of her writing.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan”

    1. I worried about that too, especially at the beginning when we’d get deep in with one character only to jump to another sibling in the next chapter. But once they’re all physically in the same place the perspective becomes more fluid between them and it helps to have that set up. And somehow delving into their mother’s past felt like it drew the whole story together and made me actually care about each of her children too. It worked for me but I know these kind of multi-character family novels are not for everyone!

  1. Always a good sign when a book makes you seek out another straight away! The setting sounds interesting in this one – I don’t think I’ve read anything about Lebanon except some folk tales a few years ago.

    1. I don’t think I have either. There has been a slight increase in Syrian/Syria-related fiction here in Canada in recent years since we have a lot of new Syrian-Canadians and I didn’t realize how linked the two countries are.

  2. Great review! This title wasn’t really on my radar but it looks like it should be- I love evocative settings in books, especially when it comes to places that aren’t very familiar to me yet. I’ll be curious to see whether you like the author’s previous novel as well!

    1. Thanks! I can’t recall now what made me put her previous book on my TBR but I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how the two compare.

    1. I do too! I’d love to visit Lebanon though I’m not sure I realistically ever will, but now I feel like I know a bit more about it.

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