• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Arsonists' City by Hala Alyan

Characters cope with lost dreams and find ways to (often clumsily) come together through their shared pain. The vibrancy of Beirut is celebrated throughout.

As we say in Arabic, Time doesn't change; time reveals.


In the novel The Arsonists' City, Hala Alyan presents a complicated situation for an extended family in which a Syrian mother, a Lebanese father, and three first-generation American children with an ancestral home in Beirut come to terms with deep loss. They return to Beirut, each broken in a way, each searching for home, fulfillment, history, peace, or all of the above, as they attempt to pull together again.


With plenty of secrets, messy interpersonal family interactions, love, and loss--all against a background of Beirut, a city shaped by and "smoldering with the legacy of war," as well as the refugee camps and life in Damascus.


Mazna and Idris's family also considers the dichotomy of the privilege they enjoy in Beirut, with a live-in housekeeper in their comfortable home, and the prejudice they experience in the United States--as well as the hierarchy of "brown" there:


In America they are considered brown... There is something self-righteous that lives alongside that marginalization, the mispronounced names, the Your English is so..., the sideways glances in department stores. But there are browner bodies out there. There are women who take care of your grandfather...women whose own families are thousands of miles away, women who are washing your plates and washing vegetables for your dinner.


The story is told in two timelines, one as young Idris and Mazna are brought together by tragedy and build their life together upon secrets, and the second during the family's imperfect reunion in Beirut. There are tragic lies and lies of omission, mistakes, missed chances, and moments that drastically change the fates of multiple families and generations. Characters cope with lost dreams, fading possibilities, boredom, and disappointment, but they also clumsily come together, fighting through pain, working through misunderstanding, and forgiving each other for terrible offenses. There are funny, tangled, heartwarming exchanges. The vibrancy of Beirut is especially present throughout--the story celebrates the city's music, art, and love.

I received a prepublication copy of this book courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

I mentioned this book in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 3/3/21 Edition.


Alyan is also the author of Salt Houses, You're Not a Girl in a Movie, and The Twenty-Ninth Year.