Book Review – Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

Salma Yacoub looked at the coffee cup and knew that something is amiss about the fate of her youngest daughter, Alia. She never read the coffee dregs of her own kin but made an exception here because it was Alia’s wedding day. So what did she do? She decided to tell a lie, to give away only the positive foretelling. 

This paraphrasing is how the novel, Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, begins. With a lie.

It is also her decision to tell this lie that captivates the reader immediately. As Salma waited for her daughter, she reminisced about her life, about how she ended up in Nablus, fleeing from Jaffa; about her husband’s death and about her three children, Widad, Mustafa, and Alia. Widad was already married and settled in Kuwait and now the youngest was getting married to Atef. Salma spared no expenses. Interestingly, the wedding itself is not described in the story but only the events leading up to it.

The entire novel is narrated through the perspectives of Salma’s family. Initially, it is her children’s viewpoints that are portrayed and later on her grandchildren and great grandchildren as well.

The novel begins in the 1960s and ends in around 2014. It narrates the history and growth of Salma’s family over 60 years. The one constant in all their perspectives is war, the act of fleeing and resettling. Movement is constant. Each generation has seen war. Salma was the first. Her children were victims of The Six Day War in 1967 which forced Atef and Alia to settle in Kuwait along with her sister, Widad. They had to flee again from Kuwait, when it was invaded by Iraq in August 1990.

The characters are perpetually settling and resettling; be it in Kuwait, Ammam in Jordan or Beirut in Lebanon. A few characters such as two of Alia’s children, Souad and Karam, also move to Boston and Paris for some time. However, Palestine is never called home again.

In portraying one family’s dispersal across the world, Salt Houses lays bare the human cost of conflict: the trauma of war and displacement that generations carry. 

The novel makes that pain ever so palpable through the characters’ memories and lived experiences. Yet, despite the sadness, their stories uphold the value of relationships and of family. There is deep warmth in the family’s get togethers. The young ones move in and out, they go looking for greener pastures but still maintain a sense of attachment with their family despite the fraught situations and tenuous nature of their relationships.

This is not to say that Hala Alyan has romanticised Palestine or the idea of the homeland and family. Yes, the past is a prominent aspect of certain characters’ lives; it is where one longs to go back to. But such narratives are set against very realistic goals of survival and staying safe, and having stability. When one of Alia’s granddaughters, Manar, visits Palestine (particularly Nablus and the home Alia grew up in), she attains no jubilation because the place has transformed. It is no longer the lust green land of orange trees that her grandmother remembers. Manar’s visit acknowledges that change has occurred. In such ways, the story steers clear of surfeit nostalgic sentimentality. The memories of older generation of Palestine are different than the realities in 2014. “Nostalgia is an affliction”, Alia remarks. Certainly, characters such as Alia live off nostalgia but that is not the only narrative employed in the novel. It does not suffer from overindulging in the oft-used connections of nostalgia and memory.

Even the fragmented identities that they have, especially Alia’s grandchildren, highlight the unrealistic idea of nationality based on borders. Alia and Atef are Palestinian and have lived in Palestine till they fled to Kuwait but none of their children or grandchildren have lived there or were even born there. They are Palestinian by nationality but also partly Kuwaiti and Lebanese. They have seen Jordan and the U.S. Alia’s grandchildren have grown up in the U.S. and are ‘ajnabi’ or strangers because of their Americanised ways. How does one explain such criss-crossings of identity to any person? The characters are constantly marked by their difference and even their friend circle includes people who are similarly anomalies from what is considered ‘normal’ identity.

While the Yacoub family is definitely a privileged one as they are moneyed and were probably landowners in Palestine, they are still refugees. They live drifting lives; lives that are unsettled by the whims and fancies of dictators and so called democratic regimes.

This privilege is acknowledged right at the beginning in Salma’s narrative when she feels grateful for having a house in Nablus and not having to languish in refugee camps, grateful that she can protect her children at least in that way from war. Alia has similar thoughts about her own children and her privilege is also set in stark contrast when she randomly meets a Kurdish refugee woman in Kuwait who tells her about what hunger really means. Yet, in no way does Alyan diminish any kind of suffering. Instead, she juxtaposes this disparity often and keeps the characters’ privilege in check.

The narrative is intimate and will tear you apart with its mixture of joy, longing, nostalgia, death and birth. The reader glimpses their lives, thoughts, and gets involved in their interweaving strands of family stories. It feels melancholic to read this novel, especially when reading about the constant political turmoil the characters are confronted with. How does one settle in life when war is always at one’s doorstep? But the multiple voices in the novel do exactly that –take brave steps, even risky ones, to carry on with their lives even though they are often ruptured by bombs and battles.

Salt Houses is a must read as it reveals layers of intertwining history and displacement through a portrait of this one family. It triumphs as a literary work as it does what literature does best: show the humane behind the cold statistical headlines. The writing is tender, delicately depicting the characters’ lives through such heart wrenching metaphors of beauty that are jarring to the reader.

“Within days the groves were mangled, soil impaled with wooden stakes, oranges scattered, pulp leaking from battered flesh.” This vivid image is as haunting as describing a morgue; it tells a different tale of the destruction yet it is still talking about war. Her writing often portrays the beauty vis a vis destruction. This is exactly what hurts the reader when reading this novel.

The novel’s take on extremist tendencies remarks bravely on its flaws. When Alia’s grandchild, Abdullah, is influenced by these Fascist thoughts, Alia speaks up against them and calls out the inherent evil in such ideologies. Alia had seen how her own brother Mustafa was lost because of this. Abdullah is Riham’s son; Riham is Alia’s eldest child. Riham transformed into a devout person after her adolescent years and in a scene, after Alia confronted Abdullah, Riham is also shown reflecting on how the religion peddled by these extremists is suffused not with faith but with anger and misinformed ideas of lost identity. It was heartening to read about characters who themselves disowned these ideas. This is very different from mainstream depiction of Muslim characters which relishes on showing them as fanatics. Here is Riham who loves her faith because of how it is, and not because someone is shouting at her to assert her religion. She truly believes in it rather than only using her religious identity as a way to channelize her anger and injustice, which is what she thinks the fascists indulge in.  This rational dissection of extremism is important in the face of constant stereotyping against an entire religion.

Salt Houses is a gut wrenching novel that leaves you hollow and sorrowful because of the sweeping history and trauma that pervades the story. Yet, it hails the sheer strength of hope amidst the barrenness of war.

Cover Image: Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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