The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

Moving through space (America, Lebanon, Syria) and time (from the 1960s to 2019) The Arsonists’ City tells a sprawling yet engrossing tale about the Nasr, a Syrian-Lebanese-American family. Written with the same subtlety and beauty as her debut novel, The Arsonists’ City presents readers with a cast of fully-fleshed out characters, however flawed or frustrating they may be, a rich exploration of the Nasrs’ personal and cultural identities, and a glimpse into Lebanon and Syria’s complex pasts and presents.
The prologue opens up with the death of a young man. The narrative then introduces us to the Nasrs’ ‘children’. There is Ava, the eldest, the only one in the family who is not driven by ambition or particularly cares to be in the spotlight. Although she’s quite content with her job as a microbiology teacher, her marriage is undergoing a rough patch. her relationship with Nate, her husband, is undergoing a rough patch. We then have Mimi, their mother’s golden boy, whose musical career never truly kicked off. As Mimi’s bandmates get younger and younger, and his peers are getting married and having children, he feels stuck. Naj, the youngest and the only one who lives outside America, is part of a successful musical duo. In Beirut, she feels free to do as she wishes. Her family don’t know she’s gay and Naj isn’t keen on abandoning her party lifestyle.
Over the years the siblings have drifted away from each other. Seemingly out of the blue their father, Iris, a heart surgeon, decides to sell his family home in Beirut. After this sudden decision, the Nasr are reunited in Beirut. Close proximity reignites deep-rooted jealousies and brings to the light old family secrets and betrayals. Their feelings towards each other, and themselves, are complicated, messy. They bicker a lot, snitch on each other (often to their mother), and, in general, don’t have the easiest time together. However, as Alyan so brilliantly demonstrates, family bonds, however thorny or challenging, can be a true source of happiness or comfort.

Their reunion in Beirut happens quite later on in the narrative. Before that, we delve into Ava, Mimi, and Naj’s everyday realities. From their romantic relationships to their sex lives and careers. Alyan also provides us with glimpses into the lives of the people around them—their partners, colleagues, friends, bandmates—so that we end up with a rich cast of characters.
Each of the children reacts differently to their father’s decision. Ava and Mimi are initially unwilling to go to Beirut but are ultimately worn down by their mother’s unrelenting recriminations. Naj isn’t particularly happy at the news either as she feels quite possessive of her life in Beirut.
The narrative then transports us to Damascus, in the 1960s. Their mother, Mazna, falls in love with the theatre and begins to dream about a future as a renowned actor. The Lebanese Civil War is the background to Mazna’s chapters which heavily focus on her acting experiences. She befriends Idris, aka her future husband, who is Syrian and his close friend Zakaria, who is Palestinian and lives in a refugee camp.
The remainder of the novel moves between the present, with the family reunited in Beirut, and the past, where we read of Mazna and Idris’ early days of marriage and of their eventual migration to California.

Most of the characters make bad choices, they hurt the ones they love, they are unsatisfied by the direction their lives are taking (both Mazna and Mimi’s careers never truly resemble what they’d envisioned), and they either cheat or are cheated on. I appreciated how each character has to deal with failure or heartbreak, either as a direct consequence of their actions or due to circumstances out of their control. I also liked how realistic the children’s relationship with one another was. Alyan gives her characters both individual and shared history, which makes them feel all the more authentic. Alyan also brings her settings to life, for better or worse.
What felt a tad unnecessary was the extensive forays into Mazna’s past. She wasn’t a particularly likeable or sympathetic character (my favourite was probably Harper, Mimi’s Texan girlfriend). For their flaws, I found myself much more interested in the lives of her children.
The story at times felt a tad too melodramatic, especially in regards to certain ‘revelations and all that cheating. I swear the Nasrs’ are a family of cheaters. It got kind of repetitive (wow, quelle surprise, someone is cheating/being cheated on, yet again). There was an odd line sexualising a child which felt a bit…yuckish? And one that gave me incest-y vibes, which was also pretty unecessary.
Despite all that, I remained enthralled by Alyan’s storytelling and piercing observations. Her dialogues ring true to life and the character dynamics are very compelling.
With the tone of Elif Shafak The Saint of Incipient Insanities and the scope of Roopa Farooki’s The Good Children, The Arsonists’ City offers its readers a captivating and intricate family saga populated by nuanced characters and deeply rooted in Lebanon and Syria’s histories and cultures. In spite of its length (the audiobook is over 19 hours) The Arsonists’ City proved to be a gripping read one that I might even re-read.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat — book review

“It is a bizarre and unsettling feeling, to exist in a liminal state between two realms, unable to attain full access to one or the other.”

Although I’d intended to read You Exist Too Much I nearly didn’t after reading a really negative review for it, one that was very critical of Zaina Arafat’s depiction of bisexuality. Luckily, my mother read this first and recommended it to me. When an author writes about a character—and even more so when they draw upon their own personal experiences to do so—they are presenting a unique point of view and they are not making generalisations for entire groups of people. The protagonist of this novel is a “love addict” not because of her bisexuality but because of her distorted relationship with her parents—in particular with her mother—and her belief that she’s not worthy of love. Arafat never implies that bisexual people can’t be faithful nor does she suggests that her protagonist’s “love addiction” is caused by her bisexuality (it seems to stem instead from her fraught relationship with her narcissistic mother).
Arafat portrayal of mental illness also struck me as incredibly realistic and deeply resonated with my own personal experiences (having had an eating disorder and having lived with a parent who was undiagnosed bipolar and had substance abuse issues).
All of this to say that Arafat’s treatment of mental and physical health conditions struck me as both informed and believable (feel free to disagree).
I will say that while I found this to be a deeply compelling read, I’m aware that it may not appeal to readers who dislike reading about self-destructive characters. If you hated Madame Bovary for the selfish behaviour of its eponymous heroine, well, chances are you won’t like this one either (curiously enough Arafat’s protagonist thinks rather harshly of Emma Bovary for “her childish fantasies and for cheating on Charles”).

“All along I knew what I was doing was wrong, that I was dangerously close to a precipice. But still, I need to fall in order to stop.”

You Exist Too Much presents its readers with an intimate and in-depth character study. While there are many new novels featuring self-loathing protagonists whose alienation interferes with their ability to form—and sustain—meaningful connections with others, You Exist Too Much feels like a fresh take on this ‘genre’.
After yet another breakup the unnamed main character of You Exist Too Much tries to break free from this vicious cycle of self-sabotaging. She’s unable, and at times unwilling, to maintain healthy relationships with others and frequently becomes drawn to unattainable people, often women. Her infatuation with them soon morphs into toxic obsessions. Arafat’s protagonist mistakes attention for affection and she repeatedly harms those who actually care for her in order to pursue her objet petit a (what can I say, Lacan comes in handy now and again).
When the main character’s girlfriend finds out about her latest “inappropriate emotional connection”, she breaks up with her, telling her to “sift through your issues and face them” so that “maybe one day you’ll learn you can’t treat people with such disregard. Even yourself”. Our narrator attempts to do just that.

The narrative moves between past and present, from the Middle East to New York City and from Italy and Egypt. Readers are given a glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood—her emotionally distant father, her overbearing narcissistic mother—where we see the way these early years skew her self-perception. Her mother tells her she’s unlovable and that she “exists too much”. The narrator is aware that her attraction towards women is a problem for her mother, yet, even if she knows that she would be more accepted if she were to become exclusively romantically involved with men, she pursues relationships with women. So, while our protagonist clearly seeks her mother’s approval, she’s unwilling to deny her sexuality.
Throughout the course of the novel, readers will realise that the narrator is perpetuating the same self-destructive behaviour. Regardless of how her relationships start, they always seem to come to disastrous ends because of her unfaithfulness (emotional and physical) and her “love addiction”, her solipsism and self-loathing, and her underlining unresolved issues with herself and her mother.

Now, I know that I’m making this novel sound rather depressing. And, to be fair, it has quite a few bleak moments. The protagonist makes a lot of awful choices, and she does some really terrible things. She’s also pretty much aware that her actions are wrong, and she does try to improve (for example she goes to rehab for her “love addiction”).
There are more downs than ups as time and again we witness her repeating the same damaging behaviour (becoming attached to unavailable or toxic people). It certainly isn’t easy to unlearn habits, especially ones that are instilled in us during our upbringing. Our narrator messes up a lot, she hurts people who genuinely love her—breaking their trust, keeping them at arm’s length—and readers will probably want to shake her quite a few times. Still, I found myself growing attached to her. I really liked her cutting sense of humour, which also lightens the overall tone and her introspectiveness. Her longing for happiness, for love, for acceptance, are rendered with clarity. Regardless of when or where she is—New York or the West Bank—the narrator is deeply aware of her own ‘otherness’. Although she grew up outside of the Middle East she remains strongly attached to her Arab roots, yet, she notes that “it’s the idiosyncrasies of culture that keep me an outsider, and leave me with a persistent and pervasive sense of otherness, of non-belonging”. In the U. S. too she’s “just as much of an outsider” and she’s made “starkly aware of [her] nonconformity”.

Arafat introduces her readers to flawed, yet ultimately compelling, characters. Regardless of their role in the narrator’s story, these characters—who are all contending with their own issues and desires— felt incredibly nuanced.
While this novel focuses a lot on the narrator failing to connect to others, there are moments of genuine understanding and love between the protagonist and her acquaintances/friends/partners. The narrator’s quest for love isn’t a happy one and her self-divide—between family obligation and desire, between her homelands, between the kind of person she is and the person she wants to be—don’t make for easy reading material. Still, the directness of Arafat’s narrator can at times make her into a rather charming individual.
You Exist Too Much is an impressive debut novel, one that is poignant, thoughtful, and bold and will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay or books on this list.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

A small part of him which he already recognizes as a lost, former self longs for his mother’s garden, the sound of wind rustling the leaves. He takes a breath, his feet flat against the carpet. His right toe itches.

Despite being a beautifully written novel Salt Houses lacks personality.
We follow different generations of a Palestinian family whom are forced to relocate time and again due to the constant strife that is – sadly – the backdrop in their lives. So while the story has the potential to explore the emotional turmoils of its characters, whom are undoubtedly affected by the various wars taking place around them, they feel flat. They do not differ greatly from one another, their differences feel forced, one child is the ‘wild one’ the other is the ‘studious one’ and so forth, but ultimately they all revealed the same ambivalence: they are constantly unsure and undecided in a way that just made them irritating rather than realistic. They do not convey any sympathetic attributes or qualities, they all seemed, at one point or another, just obnoxious and inexplicably problematic. The relationship they had with one another were unbelievable: they seem to dislike and resent each other so much it is hard to believe that they would care for each other. We are given no proof of the love they profess one another and at the same time, the amnesty and tensions between them reads as completely factitious and unnecessary. Ultimately, the characters sounded so much alike that midway through the novel, in my mind, they sort of merged into one unlikable protagonist: a character who shows little depth and can be described as being completely and utterly fickle. I did not care for them nor their story.
Characters and story aside, Alyan’s prose is alluring. So much so that it nearly makes up for her lacklustre characters and tedious storyline. Alyan’s style combines lyrical allusions with impersonal observations<. Juxtaposing characters feelings with their surroundings, their fears and doubts against the actual present. It would have had even more of an effect on the reader if the characters did not seem so dispassionate – so stale – and whose thoughts and actions verge the border of apathy itself, their remoteness so complete, that Alyan’s consideration lose their momentum.
Ironically, there is a great sense of place in this novel: Alyan manages to bring each city to life, evoking places through incisive descriptions and careful remarks. Smells, colours, seasons, all play a part in making Salt Houses very atmospheric.
Overall, Alyan has all the right ingredients for a great tale, however, she doesn’t seem to invest enough time into making her characters as rich as their background, which consequently makes their stories less appealing. Alyan’s writing professes talent but Salt Houses is, at best, a lukewarm read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads