Summary and book reviews of The Arsonists' City by Hala Alyan

The Arsonists' City

by Hala Alyan

The Arsonists' City by Hala Alyan X
The Arsonists' City by Hala Alyan
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  • Published:
    Mar 2021, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Herschbach
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About this Book

Book Summary

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).

The Wrong Ghosts

Tonight the man will die. In some ways, the city already seems resigned to it, the Beirut dusk uncharacteristically flat, cloudy, a peculiar staleness rippling through the trees like wind. It's easy to costume the earth for grief, and tonight the birds perched upon the tangled electricity wires look like mourners in their black and white feathers, staring down at the concrete refugee camps without song. 

There are orange trees in the courtyard, planted by the children the previous year; the NGO workers had wanted something bright and encouraged the youngest children to tie cheap ribbons to the branches, but they'd forgotten about the muddy season, and now the ribbons flap limply, streaked in dirt. 

The man himself—Zakaria—knows it, or doesn't. He notices the queer feeling of the camps, the way his mother's makloubeh tastes perfectly fine but seems to be saltless, the meat stringier than usual. His sisters are gathered in the living room, cross-...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Alyan writes well and with insight, but the pacing stumbles in places. While most of the book proceeds slowly and methodically, the ending feels overly rushed, with too many loose ends wrapped up hastily. And while Mazna and Idris's story is genuinely absorbing, my interest flagged in the portions of the book dealing with the private lives of the Nasr children. Despite some flaws in execution, however, The Arsonists' City is a compelling, multidimensional portrayal of the messy complexities of family life, and fans of character-driven novels will find this ambitious — if uneven — intergenerational drama to be a rewarding read...continued

Full Review Members Only (582 words).

(Reviewed by Elisabeth Herschbach).

Media Reviews

Ms. Magazine
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.

BookPage
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.

Refinery29
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.

New York Times Book Review
Breathless...Alyan plants the riches of the city with stealthy precision, making the maddening conundrum of Beirut yours...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.

Entertainment Weekly
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.

Los Angeles Review of Books
A sprawling look at various fragments of Arab identity...Alyan’s family saga contains meticulously crafted moments of betrayal, bitterness, and dashed ambitions...an intricately plotted, tightly knit novel that at once breaks the heart and fills it with joy.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[E]xquisite...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.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Painful and joyous, sad and funny—impossible to put down.

The Millions
Alyan's varied talents never cease to amaze.

Booklist (starred review)
Acute psychological insight and a sense of Beirut as a fluid, evolving entity further amplify the power of this moving family drama.

Author Blurb Etaf Rum, New York Times best-selling author of A Woman Is No Man
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.

Author Blurb Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind
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.

Author Blurb Mira Jacob, author of Good Talk and The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing
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.

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Beyond the Book

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

Overhead shot of brick buildings crowded together in Burj Barajneh refugee campLocated on the Mediterranean Sea, tiny Lebanon has the highest per capita population of Syrian refugees in the world, hosting an estimated 1.5 million who have fled from its war-torn neighbor. To put this in perspective, Lebanon is about half the size of Massachusetts with a population of just under eight million as of 2019. It has long been caught in the middle of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and has faced violence and upheaval for more than half a century as a result. Decades before the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011 sent an influx of people across its borders, Lebanon was already home to a sizable population of Palestinian refugees — like Zakaria and his mother Hayat in Hala Alyan's The Arsonists' City.

The first ...

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