My first book of 2021 is December 2020’s Fantastic Stranglings book club book, which arrived on the very last day of the year (thanks, USPS).
Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria
.One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s–and his grandmother’s–in ways he never could have expected.
I’ve read the first two chapters, as I usually do before I write my first impressions, and so far I am a little lost and confused, but that’s okay. I know little to nothing about Syria (I have a lot of “common knowledge” gaps in my education because of how many different schools I attended when I was younger, but I’m making up for it as an adult), so I’m unsure how much I should actually know about Syria to read this book. I may have to just do a quick research jaunt of significant events in the 1900s in Syria so I know I understand everything.
The book starts off with our unnamed main narrator, who is quietly attempting to transition from female to male and has not yet chosen a new name, so on the chapters they narrate, the name is scratched out. The book picks up five years after our narrator’s mother dies in a fire, and in all that time they have not been able to draw or paint at all – except at night, sneaking out of the house to graffiti another bird on a wall somewhere in downtown “Little Syria” in New York City.
Until the night they get up enough courage to sneak into the abandoned community center in search of an artist who disappeared (presumed to be dead) years ago, Laila. And it is Laila’s journal that we pick up in Chapter Two of the book.
I can’t tell when the unnamed narrator’s parts take place, but I am assuming it’s present day (so probably 2010-2020), and Laila’s journal takes place in the 1940s (at least to start, as she mentions being born in 1920, and the events take place well after that). I am very interested in seeing where the two parts end up colliding, as hinted to on the book jacket.
I’m going to guess that Laila has something to do with the “mysterious/suspicious fire” that killed our narrator’s mother, and the revelation is going to be something stunning, but we’ll see. Hopefully I’m not predicting the book’s plot twist from the beginning!
Happy new year, and may you not encounter a bad book this year!
And as always, keep reading.