Last Night in Brighton, Massoud Hayoun (Darf Publishers 978-1-85077-350-4, £10.99, 240pp, tp) October 2022.
In my review of Robert Freeman Wexler’s, The Silverberg Business, I remarked that I seldom read fiction with characters and situations representing my faith and culture. Yet here I am, for the second consecutive month, reviewing a novel where Jewish identity is central to the narrative. The book in question, Massoud Hayoun’s Last Night in Brighton (a thematic sequel to Building 46, which came out earlier in the year, though both books stand on their own), is a gender-bending, time-travelling story told from the perspective of Sam Saadoun, who identifies as Jewish, Arabic, and queer. On a personal level, Sam’s Egyptian heritage is a reminder that Judaism is not a monolithic faith but a diverse ethnic group with various traditions and customs (some recognisable to European Jews, some less so). More broadly, Last Night in Brighton is a vivid, emotionally knotty novel about identity, memory, acceptance, and love.
Sam is spending a final night in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn before he “mentally castrates” himself via hypnosis and then heads to Egypt, his family home before the Jewish community was forced to emigrate after the “occupation of Palestine in 1948.” While dining at the Kashkar Café, Sam meets the coincidentally named Brighton “Tony” Arbuthnot and offers to show the Londoner, with his “posh sounding” British accent and his glossy dark hair “like the unshorn wool of a black sheep,” around Brighton Beach, starting with the culinary delights of “Little Odessa.” As the night ebbs on, Sam gradually reveals himself to Tony, sharing his struggle to connect with other gay men and his unwillingness to come out to his family, particularly his recently deceased grandfather Wasim.
Running parallel to Sam and Tony’s night together is Sam’s visit to his hypnotist, where he undergoes a radical form of Past Life Regression Therapy. As Doctor Fahmy explains, “it employs many of the same techniques of my Past Life offerings, but the purpose is to travel to a space at once familiar and unknown to you.” That space is the Egyptian port city of Alexandria in the 1930s, where Sam encounters an elderly Muslim woman dressed in a black cloak, who not only recognises him but is aware that he has travelled from “Brookli.” The woman leads Sam to the Saadoun family home on Flower Street, where she vouches for him. It’s at this point Sam makes two important discoveries: the elderly Muslim woman is, in fact, his great-great-grandmother Hawa, of whom the family kept no photos, and more profoundly, Sam is no longer a man but has transformed into a young woman.
Last Night in Brighton deals with subject matter that is difficult and emotionally fraught: Sam’s inability to reconcile his competing identities as a Jew, an Arab, and a queer man, coupled with the recent death of his grandfather, who was unaware of his grandson’s sexuality, leads Sam to believe his only option, if he wants to be part of a community, a family, is to excise a part of who he is. “I’ve spent enough time pursuing things with men,” he tells Tony. “And I’ve never had a single one show me the kind of family I want. I know that if I go home, I’ll find it there. Sex isn’t everything. In fact, the older I get, the more it seems like an obstacle to what I need.”
What’s so gratifying is that despite Sam’s inner conflict, the novel is bright and lively, like a photo saturated with colour. Even before Tony enters the scene, Sam, who, to be fair, is high on pot, comments on the alchemic properties of Tahina (“a marvel of the Arab traditions of culinary and scientific innovation”) and takes obscene amounts of pleasure in a plate of falafel (“I put my hand in the plate. I wanted to feel the falafel grease. I wanted to know the oil intimately”). Tony’s introduction takes this physicality to another level. Their impromptu first date is a spirited blend of the deep and meaningful (including where they lost their virginity) and frequent checks of the app “Pound” to see if anyone wants to lend their bed and watch them have sex. Yes, there’s darkness at the fringes of their night together – Tony is disturbed by Sam’s revelation that he intends to castrate himself mentally – but their relationship has the intensity of the best love stories. Added to this is Sam / Sama’s journey to Alexandria. Just as he does with Brighton Beach, Hayoun brings to life the port city, the food, the colours, and the oppressive heat. I especially loved Sama’s relationship with her family: her squabbling teenage Aunties, her otherworldly great-great-grandmother, and the younger version of her grandfather, Wasim, who Sama enjoys only a few precious moments with.
Throughout all this, Hayoun never loses sight of Sam’s mental turmoil, but his approach is humane, empathic, and threaded with moments of humour, love, and beauty. If this is Hayoun’s last novel – as the back cover blurb suggests – then as upset as I’ll be, he will have at least gone out on a high.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at email@example.com.
This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.
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