These two novels are among the most absorbing and satisfying I’ve read in the past few years.
The Arsonists’ City concerns the Nasrs, an Arab-American family based in the Southern California desert community of Blythe. The father, Idris, is a heart surgeon originally from Beirut, while the mother, Mazna, was a stage actress in Damascus before immigrating. Their three adult children are close-knit despite having relocated to Brooklyn, Austin, and Beirut. The plot is set in motion when Idris’s father dies, leaving their family home in Beirut empty. Idris surprises everyone when he announces that he plans to sell it; the house and Beirut, for better or worse, remain the family’s touchstone.
When everyone travels to Beirut to sort things out, various long-simmering conflicts come to the surface. The heart of the story is a long-held secret that played a key part in Idris and Mazna’s decision to emigrate to the U.S. These characters took up residence in my mind and eventually my heart. Hala Alyan sensitively probes each character’s life and the many tangled but loving relationships. Beirut is a vivid presence, whether the characters are at the beach, in crowded restaurants and clubs, or driving on streets dotted with military checkpoints. This is a passionate, bittersweet story that explores family life, immigration, and the fraught history of Lebanon and Syria. I’m still thinking about it a few weeks later.
A Place for Us was my favorite read of 2019. Like The Arsonists’ City, it uses a milestone event as the catalyst for revelations among a close-knit family, in this case, the eldest daughter’s wedding. The wrench in the works is Amar, the bride’s younger brother, who has been estranged from the family for three years. Mirza’s debut novel uses the story of one Indian Muslim family living in the Bay Area to examine issues of identity, family, and finding (or making) a place for oneself in the larger community. The writing is elegant, the characters are realistically complex, and the family’s struggle to remain bound together in love is deeply involving. I was spellbound for the entire 400 pages. I’ve been pressing A Place for Us on people for two years. Now it’s your turn to read it.