I think to myself, It is terrifying to be visible, and then I think, I have been waiting all my life to be seen.– The Thirty Names of Night
Summary and Thoughts
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. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to officially claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.
As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.
Featuring Zeyn Joukhadar’s signature “magical and heart-wrenching” (The Christian Science Monitor) storytelling, The Thirty Names of Night is a timely exploration of how we all search for and ultimately embrace who we are.
The Thirty Names of Night was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and while it wasn’t the smash-hit I was hoping it would be, my lack of enthusiasm is more likely a difference in taste rather than any flaw in the novel itself. The story follows Nadir as he navigates his identity, grief over his mother, his gentrifying New York community, and the mysterious illustrator Laila Z who seems to be connected to his mother and grandmother. Throughout the novel, Joukhadar weaves his various themes and messages on acceptance, memory, death, and love by using ornate, visual language that often dazzles, even if it also veers on the superfluous. While I loved Joukhadar’s characters and appreciated the complexity of their thoughts, I sometimes found their monologues circuitous or redundant, especially as I hit the halfway point of the novel. In this sense, while I highly enjoyed the beginning and end of the book, the middle parts were hit-and-miss, plagued by uneven pacing. Still, this was only my personal experience, and I know other reviewers enjoyed this story immensely. For this reason, I’d still definitely recommend this book, though I would keep in mind what your own taste in novels is like before picking it up (and also – Ramadan Kareem!).
For Those Who Enjoyed
- The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis
- The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
- You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
- Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom