“The Thirty Names of Night” Review

Book cover for The Thirty Names of Night. The background is white with a multi-colored bird's wing and the title over the wing.

Written by Zeyn Joukhadar
Published by Atria Books, November 2020
Number of Pages: 291
Completed: March 23, 2023

From the first part of the description of the book on the publisher’s website:

“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. 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, but he’s been struggling ever since his mother’s ghost began visiting him each evening.”

“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 birds. She 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 in ways he never could have expected.”

I really enjoyed everything about this book. At its core it’s a story about the narrator figuring out himself and also figuring out what happened Laila Z. I did like that even before the narrator come’s out and chooses his name his deadname is never used by anyone. Even the chapter headings that signify points of view block out his deadname until it switches to the name he chooses for himself. A very deliberate choice throughout the book and I think it’s important to not know the name he chooses he does. To that end – consider avoiding the full description of the book as well as reviews and interviews until you’ve read it. This is one of the few times I’d say not being spoiled is important.

I did end up feeling there were one or two plot points I didn’t really understand in the book. For example something seems to be going on with the birds in the book – large numbers are appearing in the city and other related things – but I don’t think we ever get an explanation for that. Though I somewhat wonder if the birds are a metaphor for the internal conflict of the narrator figuring himself out? Or I missed something in my late light reading? Or both…? However it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book as whole because the narrator’s journey is the point. While everything else has meaning understanding it completely isn’t needed.

I want to link to one interview with Zeyn Joukhadar I found that adds some additional context to the book that I can’t speak to. As Zeyn Joukhadar says at the beginning of the interview:

I wanted to tell a story that was fundamentally about many things at once,” Joukhadar says. “It was just as much about being trans as it was being the child of an immigrant, about being Muslim, about being Arab American. I want those things to be inextricable from each other.”

I feel like I learned a lot of things from this book in regards to the above quote. The interview is also interesting in that I learned that the author was also exploring their own identity while writing the book. As was the person conducting the interview. The book and the interview both provide some insight to what that’s like.

Full interview at: ‘It’s Powerful to Let People Love You with a Name that You Chose for Yourself’: An Interview with Zeyn Joukhadar by Ziya Jones at Hazlitt – this interview does reveal the narrator’s chosen name so you may wish to read it after reading the book.

Also another word of caution – there some reviews that misgender the narrator in entirety – Don’t bother reading any of those.