The Thirty Names of Night

Atria. May 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781982121495. $27. F
Exceptionally beautiful writing is the hallmark of this well-crafted novel about Syrian immigrants in New York City. In alternating chapters, our initially unnamed narrator (with a scratched-out name) relates the family story of his “Little Syria” Brooklyn neighborhood. The ghost of his ornithologist mother leads him to discover the secrets of Laila Z, whose paintings of birds were just becoming famous beyond the Syrian American community when she mysteriously disappeared six decades ago. Reading her journal, our anonymous narrator realizes that his mother and grandmother had a special relationship with Laila, which helps ease him out of the closet and exposes him as transmasculine. Throughout, birds are powerful, poetic images. The elusive rare bird that Laila sought to capture in paint becomes the symbol of our protagonist, who finally resolves to become masculine and gives himself the name Nadir, which means rare.
VERDICT Joukhadar conveys the protagonist’s gender confusion with such a sense of turmoil and angst that the reader can also become a bit confused, but overall this is a brilliant novel from the author of the celebrated The Map of Salt and Stars. [See Prepub Alert, 11/4/19.]
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