Hala Alyan’s second novel, The Arsonists’ City, follows the members of the Nasr family as they debate the sale of the family home in Lebanon. Like the Yacoub family in Alyan’s debut novel, Salt Houses, the Nasrs are spread all over the globe, but when Idris, the family patriarch, decides to sell the ancestral home in Beirut after his own father’s death, his wife and children unite in their shared desire to stop him.
Though the house in Beirut has been a constant touchstone, the Nasrs’ lives are marked by the effects of political upheaval, migration and globalization. In 1978, Mazna met Idris through mutual friends while she was training to be an actor in her hometown of Damascus, and she began secretly visiting him in Beirut, though her romantic interest was initially sparked by Idris’ best friend. After the city was torn apart by civil war, Idris and Mazna married and immigrated to suburban Los Angeles, where Idris worked as a cardiologist. Mazna abandoned her dreams of being an actor, raised their three children and took a job in a small garden center.
Now their oldest daughter, Ava, lives in Brooklyn, and their middle son, Mimi, manages a restaurant in Austin, Texas, though most of his passion is thrown into a middling rock band. Mimi’s lack of fulfillment puts him at odds with his younger sister, Naj, whose music career took off internationally and who chose Beirut as her home, in part to keep her sex life far from the judgmental eyes of her parents.
Idris’ decision to sell the house brings the parents and adult children, with and without their life partners, to Beirut, where the safe distance that cushioned their complicated relationships is eliminated. Old passions, betrayals and bitter jealousies quickly arise.
Alyan, who is a family therapist as well as a poet and novelist, has a gift for depicting the knotty, messy but ultimately resilient bonds of family love. Though The Arsonists’ City lays bare how civil war and brutal violence impact a single family, it is the everyday, sometimes petty squabbles between husband and wife, brother and sister, parent and child that make this novel both memorable and relatable.