Last Night in Brighton by Massoud Hayoun, published by Darf, is a trip into the mind, psyche, and soul of gay Jewish American Arab, Sam Saadoun. That this, the second book in what Hayoun refers to as his “Ghorba Ghost Story Series,” features a character with the same name as the protagonist in the first book, Building 46, can’t be a coincidence.
The two young men share similar identities: Both are Jewish/Arab Americans and gay, and both are at crossroads in their life. Maybe it’s the heightened state of anxiety or stress both Sams are experiencing, but both experience what in their minds are ghost stories. In the case of Last Night in Brighton, the ghosts are Sam’s family as they were in Alexandria, Egypt long before they immigrated to the U.S.
Confused and beset by worries about his sexuality, Sam has been seeing a psychotherapist who specializes in hypnosis. During one of their sessions he finds himself transported back in time to Alexandria in the 1930s, where he meets up with his grandparents when they were young. While this is odd enough to begin with, he also has become her, Sama, and interacts with them as a young woman.
Taken in as an out-of-town cousin, Sam(a) is both living in the past and observing it at the same time. As part of the extended family they (switching to a non-gendered pronoun) travel to synagogue, go shopping for clothes, and experience life in Alexandria. They also find themselves, most inappropriately for a single woman at that time, still attracted to men and wanting to experience sex as a woman while they have the chance.
Readers might jump to the obvious conclusion that maybe Sam wants to transition to being a woman, and that’s what this sojourn into the hidden recesses of his mind is all about. However, that tempting but simplistic thought doesn’t do justice to what Hayoun is exploring with his character.
The situation is far more complex, as we see when we follow Sam around the Brighton Beach area in contemporary New York City. Here the ambiguity of the book’s title, or the “Last Night” part of it anyway, is on display. Does it refer to this being his last night of sex before striving to be celibate – or is it even more final? A last night, period?
In contemporary New York City, Sam is touring the Russian emigre neighbourhood of Brighton Beach. Part farewell tour and part trip down memory lane, it really feels like he’s saying goodbye to something. Is he really planning on moving back to Egypt? Or is something else happening?
It’s during one of his stops for comfort in the shape of food that he meets Tony. After some tentative flirting the two men hook up in what Sam assures us, and Tony, will be his last fling. The two go on a pilgrimage of Russian kitsch – ranging from the souvenir stores selling everything from nestled dolls to photos of Putin to cafes selling cloying sweets and dark coffee. They even end up passing through a small Russian Orthodox religious service.
Hayoun has created a fascinating character study with his examination of Sam, who is compelling as both a man and a woman. We are drawn into his life, and the lives of his ghost family. As an exploration of how our family history drives our decisions and pushes us in certain directions, this book doesn’t provide simplistic answers. It just shows us how, and why, this type of exertion can happen.
Both Sam and his female counterpart are looking for something beyond themselves. The whole idea of a novel taking place in two time periods with the same character appearing in both but as different genders could have become a muddled mess. However, Hayoun has somehow managed to weave the two stories together to make a beautiful tapestry that flows easily between genders and time.
This is a wonderful and intelligent work. It’s not only an intriguing examination of one person’s internal struggle, it will also make you question any preconceived notions about gender and sexuality you might harbour.
However, first and foremost, Last Night in Brighton is an intriguing and compelling story about who we are and how we our shaped by our pasts.