In modern-day New York City, a trans boy in his 20s is coming to a realization about himself. For the past five years, he’s been dealing with the immense grief of losing his mother, a passionate ornithologist. Now he lives with and cares for his grandmother, who emigrated from Syria decades before. American by birth and with dark skin, he struggles to find a place where he feels fully alive and welcome. He hasn’t been able to put his art degree to professional use since his mother died, killed by the hate-crime fire that he escaped, but he has taken to painting clandestine murals of birds on the only building left of what used to be Little Syria in Lower Manhattan.
One night, he enters the rundown former tenement building and finds the journal of a mysterious Syrian artist named Laila Z, a painter of birds, who disappeared years ago. The more he reads, the more he realizes that Laila’s story and his family’s story have many overlaps, and it’s possible that neither story is over yet.
Birds are the major motif in The Thirty Names of Night, so much as to often feel overwhelming. The birds take on magical realism elements as they swarm the city, die en masse and disappear altogether. Birds also function as a way for the protagonist to divert his attention from his immediate surroundings, leading the reader back into the recesses of his memories, where his mother is still alive. This premise is strong and promises a bit of a mystery, though his interior experiences are so vivid that they tend to overshadow the plot.
The book’s strongest parts are the protagonist’s experiences of body dysphoria and how he comes to understand himself as trans. These are delivered in a way that is both incredibly specific and lyrically abstract. Author Zeyn Joukhadar excels at writing the emotional, physical and spiritual experiences of a young trans person.