We first meet the novel’s unnamed Syrian American narrator while he is being examined by a gynecologist. The IUD he had hoped would stop or at least slow his menstrual cycle is causing problems. It doesn’t help that the physician is unable to sympathize with the challenges this trans man faces. He cringes when the doctor’s receptionist addresses him as “miss.”
The narrator — who remains nameless until he becomes unapologetic about his true self — graduated from art school five years before, around the time his mother died in a fire during her search for an elusive bird breed. His grief for her is continuous and ferocious. It’s the mother’s haunting of her son’s life — he speaks to her and sees her everywhere — that makes this novel a ghost story as much as it is a mystery, an exposé on systemic racism and an honest account of the LGBTQ and refugee experience. “The Thirty Names of Night” is a multifaceted jewel of a novel and each facet is brilliant in its own way.
The mystery lies in the narrator’s attempt to prove the existence of a rare bird — Geronticus simurghus — which has only been seen by three individuals in recent times: the narrator’s ornithologist mother; the missing, perhaps dead artist Laila Z, whose painting of this bird, so rare it seems more myth than reality, cannot be located; and Dr. Benjamin Young, a long dead Black ornithologist who made mention of the bird in his field notes, but who was never taken seriously by White academics.
Joukhadar is a richly poetic writer. He gorgeously imagines the bird as it’s described in the narrator’s folkloric family stories: “Their wingtips were glossy blue-black, shimmering like the bellies of spiders; others said the white bodies and black markings were a myth, and that the only thing to interrupt their black plumage, dark as the moment after lightning, were their gilded breast feathers that gleamed like coins at last light.”
The novel also, in alternating chapters, tells the story of the missing artist Laila Z through her journal. It’s when the narrator discovers these writings in an abandoned tenement in Manhattan’s Little Syria that his path toward self-fulfillment is firmly underway. The journal reveals Laila’s love for women and secrets about her connection to the narrator’s family. These revelations set his search for the missing painting and his own place in the world on parallel tracks.
While Laila’s story is fascinating, more than anything, this is the story of a trans man gathering the power to share with the world the fitting name he has chosen for himself. Through Nadir’s journey, Joukhadar gives us a raw and powerful portrayal of his character’s agony and loneliness as he deals with living in a body that make him look female. Here’s how he feels when he menstruates: “My chest and belly felt swollen and full, and every movement reminded me of how wrong I felt. I moved slower. A chasm had opened between me and my skin, as though I were fumbling around in a too-big pair of gloves. The only words I had back then were for what I knew I wasn’t — a girl. But how to explain this feeling that my body was a tracing of something else, and not all the lines matched up?”
This incredibly courageous novel, full of suspense and discoveries, reminds us of the dignity we all deserve and the pain suffered by those who still feel the need to hide themselves.
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.
The Thirty Names of Night
By Zeyn Joukhadar
Atria. 304 pp. $27