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THE ARSONISTS' CITY by Hala Alyan Kirkus Star


by Hala Alyan

Pub Date: March 9th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-358-12655-3
Publisher: Mariner Books

Alyan’s riveting novel, set in America and the Middle East, brims with overlapping memories of secrets, betrayals, and loyalties within a seemingly assimilated Syrian Lebanese American family.

In 1978, young Palestinian Zakaria is assassinated in a refugee camp in Beirut, the victim of a factional revenge killing during Lebanon’s civil war. Weeks before, Zakaria had betrayed his best friend, Lebanese Idris, with Idris’ Syrian girlfriend, Mazna. Spelled out in the first pages, these facts will haunt the novel as their impact on members of the Nasr family comes to light. Cut to present-day California, where cardiac surgeon Idris Nasr lives with Mazna, whom he married not long after Zakaria’s death. Their three grown children, born and raised in America, take their parents’ perpetually rocky 40-year marriage for granted. And as they first avoid, then succumb to Mazna’s entreaties to convene in Beirut—supposedly to hold a memorial service for Idris’ recently deceased father but really to protest against Idris’ selling the ancestral home he's just inherited—all three are hiding problems from their parents. In Brooklyn, almost 40-year-old microbiologist Ava suspects her WASP husband is having an affair; in Austin, Mimi, 32, has cheated on his long-suffering girlfriend and been dumped by the band he started; almost 30-year-old Naj, an internationally famous singer/musician, has yet to tell her parents she’s gay. Meanwhile, Mazna, whose passions for Zakaria and her aborted career as an actress have never died, has spent her marriage betraying and being betrayed by Idris, depending upon yet resenting him. And Idris, a man of privileged self-importance and some charm, is perhaps more self-aware than his family realizes. Palestinian American psychologist and writer Alyan is masterful at clarifying the complicated sociopolitical realities surrounding Lebanon's and Syria’s intertwined histories in terms of class, caste, colonialism, and tribalism. But even more masterful here—as in Salt Houses(2017), which portrayed the Palestinian diaspora through four generations of a single family—is her laserlike focus on her multifaceted characters in big and small moments that come together to create a singular family.

Painful and joyous, sad and funny—impossible to put down.