The Thirty Names of Night

TL/DR

Don’t be an ass.

Beautifully written, lyrical prose, lots of bird symbolism. The style isn’t normally in my wheelhouse, but I’m very glad I read this book. It will stick with me for a long time.

The Thirty Names of Night (by Zeyn Joukhadar) was the December Fantastic Strangelings Book Club selection. 

(Side note for anyone unfamiliar with the Fantastic Strangelings- it’s a monthly book club coordinated by Nowhere Bookshop out of San Antonio, owned by none other than the fabulous Jenny Lawson!)

In a nutshell:

Years after the narrator’s ornithologist mother is killed in a fire, a closeted trans nonbinary character finds the old journal of a disappeared artist (Laila Z) who painted birds, including possibly a rare bird of debated existence that the now-deceased mother of the narrator was attempting to prove existed. The book alternates between the nameless (for a while) narrator speaking to the mother (whose ghost intermittently appears) and that of the journal entries of Laila Z, who is writing to someone from her early life.

I wasn’t sure where I was going to start on this one- I have a lot of feelings about it. But! Then I went onto the Fantastic Strangelings Facebook page to read some of the discussion for inspiration, and boy did I get some. 

I quote:

“I was extremely annoyed with the author’s assumption that everyone knew the (for lack of a better term) culturally-related/langue [sic] words, using them with no definition or a context you could understand, for the most part. After a while I’d stop looking them up (I figured, if they weren’t important enough for the author to define, they’re not important enough for me to look up), I just got so annoyed at the presumption, and break in flow, that I’d put the book down for a day and go to something else. This made me sad because it is an extraordinary story with extraordinary characters and beautiful prose. That kind of arrogance in a writer just irks me because she’s only turning people off to her work. Just my humble opinion.”

Where the actual fuck do I even start. The irony of calling the author arrogant? I mean, THE PRESUMPTION!

I suppose the most egregious error here is the commenter’s use of she/her. The author of the book is trans, and the protagonist of this book is trans nonbinary. Pronouns are not a small detail to overlook on any day of the week, but considering the context- woof.

And then all this bullshit about needing your lit dumbed down for you? 

“Such an amazing story with amazing characters, but I really prefer experiencing different cultures through the lens of Sesame Street. If I can’t have a guest celebrity sing me a nice ditty, then at the very least please throw me a glossary.”

Ugh. ugh. UGH. I don’t really have anything more to say about this, it just pissed me off enough to need to vent on it.

(The comment (and my response) (which was totally nice, I swear) (no, really, I definitely didn’t mention Sesame Street) has since been deleted from the page.)

But the book!

I’ll be honest. I almost DNFed in the first 80 or so pages. That is really less a commentary on the book, and more about my personal preferences. The book and I just weren’t clicking. It is VERY lyrical and poetically written, which is not my favorite style. That, combined with the chapters alternating between two characters that are both narrating as if they are speaking directly to other people (second person? I don’t know. Couldn’t decide. A lot of “you’s” but not as in talking to the reader…..do I make any sense anymore?), made this tough for me to get into. 

Also, there’s just a LOT of birds. Like….. a lot. Flocks. Gaggles. They are an important part of the story, but sometimes I couldn’t tell what was supposed to be real and what was more magical in nature. That may have been intentional. It’s just the type of ambiguity that I’m not totally comfortable with. I like magic and magical realism, but I like it better when I’m sure that’s what it is. Again, that’s about me. Not the book.

However, I’m soooo glad I didn’t give up. I learned so much. Both story-lines are fascinating, but I got a lot out of reading about the experiences of the trans narrator’s physical and mental discomforts, lonesomeness, and subsequent awakening and formation of a “found family.” I love a book that weaves all of its threads together at the end, and this one does so gorgeously.

Here are a few quotes that I really liked:

Sami, an artist who creates knots around the city: 

“I use the knots to mark where things happened. Marking a thing is a kind of witnessing. The past is already bound to the ground where it took place. I’m just making the bond visible.”

The narrator, speaking to his dead mother:

“We buried not a person but a continent that day. We’re made from clay, after all, aren’t we, and underground springs and threads of copper run in our veins. When this country asks me where I’m from, they aren’t asking for the city on my birth certificate, but whose earth is in my blood.”

I would certainly recommend this book, particularly to those interested in learning more about trans experiences. It is not a subtle book, however, so anyone who gets turned off by heavy-handedness (such as myself) should know what they are picking up beforehand. That being said, it was worth it for me in the end to experience something completely different.

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