“The main feature of exile is a double conscience, a
double exposure of different times and spaces, a constant bifurcation.”
– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
Hala Alyan writes novels about the effect of displacement on families, the intergenerational trauma passed on as a result of losing a homeland and how it manifests in subsequent generations. She focuses on the minutae of their lives, the clash of cultures and personalities within a family, their rootlessness and their attempts to find their place in a new world that cares little for them.
Her debut novel Salt Houses followed the female line of a family forced to abandon Palestine, after a daughter visited family in Kuwait in 1967, then found herself unable to return, giving rising to successive generations born outside of their home country. Alyan is Palestinian American and spent her own childhood moving between the Middle East and the US, studying in Beirut, finding inspiration for her future characters.
“I wanted to write a family story that felt more urgent and plot-driven than what I had done in my previous work,” Alyan reveals. “I wanted to play with and unpack themes of secrecy – the lies we tell, the secrets we keep from ourselves and the secrets we keep from the people we love – and how that ripples out and what the intergenerational impact is.” Hala Alyan
The Arsonist’s City
This latest novel begins with a short chapter on the last day of a young man’s life. His name is Zakaria and he lives in one of the Palestinian camps in Beirut. His death is part of a cycle of revenge, one that causes people in many countries to seek asylum elsewhere, people caught in the wrong pace at the wrong time, lives changed in a moment.
The civil war had left the country riven – Shi’ite, Sunni, Maronite, Druze. Now they’ve found Zakaria. Not as an act of war, but one of love, of revenge.
Zakaria’s role in the story is small, but the impact his death has on his friends Mazna, a theatre actress and Idris, a medical student, is life-changing. It is a shocking opening and leaves the reader wanting to know more about these three friends and how they are all implicated in what happened. It plants a seed of fear that never quite leaves the narrative, an absence of the feeling of safety and security that pursues those who flee.
He sighs. “We all come from tribes, Damascus. Whether we want to admit it or not.It’s just that in a tiny place like Beirut, like Lebanon, you can’t help but notice differences. One family sees another has a bigger olive tree. One village wants the other’s water supply. Wars have been started over less.”
The Second Generation
The novel is very character lead and something of an immersive family saga.
After the opening chapter, the narrative jumps forward to the near present, focusing on Mazna’s three American born children, Ava, mother of two, a biologist married to Nate, whose marriage has hit a rocky patch; Marwan (Mimi), a 30 something musician, who can’t quite let go of the dream of becoming a rock star, his band now in its fifth incarnation since he graduated; and Naj, the youngest, also a musician and singer who returned to Beirut, to further her ambitions.
Much as they liked to bemoan Ava’s siblings’ careers, her mother and father understand them more than they do hers. They understand ambition, the hunger for the spotlight. Visibility.
The three children, now young adults, have all been invited to spend the summer at their Grandfather’s home in Beirut, to attend his one year memorial. Their father has announced he intends to sell and wants them all present for this last summer.
The Road to Damascus
Having got to know each of these characters, the timeline moves back to the past, before Zakaria’s death, to Mazna’s adolescence in her hometown of Damascus, her venturing into theatre and acting, the catalyst for meeting Idris and his friends, and secret outings to Beirut.
Her failed attempts to pursue her career in America. Her shame. Her reluctance. Her giving in. Her anger. Her rage. Her silence. An atonement.
You soften in the end because they’re all you have. It’s not right and it’s not what you wanted, but here you are…this is her debt and her repayment, the life she has made for herself.
The return to Idris’s birth city will uncover secrets and combust lies, revealing fractures and deceptions that could make or break relationships. He will be challenged on his decision and the family, brought together under one roof for the first time in years, will be confronted with aspects of their past and present that can no longer be ignored.
None of the children know anything about their parents’ childhood friend, but old photos and the appearance of his mother outside their grandfather’s house prompt questions no one wants to answer. When they see the young man in an old video, their mother’s reaction speaks volumes:
“Your father is selling a house that isn’t his!” She starts stomping out of the room. “You three are poking through things that aren’t yours! Everyone in this country is a vulture!” They hear a door slam.
“I guess she knew him,” Naj says.
It’s a hotbed of drama, of disappointments, of temptations and regrets.
An enjoyable if overly long-winded read with an abundance of detail and dialogue that felt like a melodramatic soap opera at times. In that respect, while it touched on many issues, they’re dealt with at a superficial level, a lost opportunity given the author’s background as a psychologist.
My main disappointment was how peripheral the family of Zakaria were and some of the decisions the author took about the connections (or lack of) between the two families. Opening the narrative with this family was an invitation to the reader, one that was never quite fulfilled.
The novel was however shortlisted for the Aspen Literary Award 2022 and they had this to say:
“The Arsonist’s City is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the aftermath of violence, displacement and upheaval. Alyan expertly balances her portrait of the way early dreams and parts of the self can vanish in adulthood with an exploration of how quickly home or a sense of normalcy can vanish or shift for an entire population, how easily a person, a city or a way of life can become at once familiar and unrecognisable.” 2022 Literary Prize Jury
A Sense of Place, A City Like No Other
Though I have never visited Damascus, I have been to Beirut a couple of times and I found that the novel evoked many memories of being in that city (over 20 years ago) and the surrounding countryside, the presence of the Syrian army, checkpoints, traffic lights that were recently installed but not compulsory, a generation of youth that had spent their childhoods in bunkers who just wanted to listen to music and party all night long.
As I read, I could hear the sound of that music and see how it became an escape for youth who wanted to escape their constraint, to take risks to feel free and belong to something outside themselves.
“People get older, they forget how brutal youth is. How dangerous it can be.”
New York Times A Family Reunites in Beirut, Where the Past Is Never Past by Maya Salam
Thoughts From A Page Interview via Podcast by Cindy Burnett: the character she enjoyed writing the most, wanting to provide a deeper understanding of Lebanon to her readers, how and why intergenerational conflict and secrets provide great fodder for writers, and more.
National News: Arts & Culture : ‘The Arsonists’ City’: Why Hala Alyan’s second novel is a love letter to Lebanon by Malcolm Forbes
“Home for me is a combination of where you have nested.” But, she says: “I always have in the back of my mind an understanding that that can change physically, for that’s the legacy of what I’ve experienced.” Hala Alyan
N.B. I read an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) e-book version thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (now Mariner Books) via NetGalley. The book was published in the US in March 2021.