Book Review: SALT HOUSES by Hala Alyan

Have you ever read a book that was beautiful yet heartbreaking? SALT HOUSES by Hala Alyan is an exquisitely written family saga that is significant narrative in the current socio-political climate of the world.

Brief Synopsis

This multigenerational saga takes us into the world of a wealthy Palestinian family, the Yacoubs, starting with the perspective of the matriarch Salma. The story begins in 1963; Salma is planning her daughter’s wedding in Nablus, the city she’d had to flee to after the war drove people out of Jaffa. The consecutive chapters give the perspective of several of Salma’s succeeding family, eventually ending with the perspective of her great-great-granddaughter Manar who is visiting modern-day Jaffa to reconnect with her family’s history and heritage. In this sweeping saga, Alyan writes several characters whose lives are shaped by the socio-political climate the world has plunged in.


Structure and Writing

Each chapter is written from the perspective of a member of the Yacoub family. Alyan manages to introduce new characters, familiarise us with the rhythms and patterns of their life, and just when we feel we know that person we’re set up with another character. Despite the variations, we’re able to keep up with their stories through the various narratives. We meet them in their youth and, as is the case with a couple of characters, we visit them in their old age. The continuity of life is so seamless that I couldn’t help by wonder how Alyan had the forethought to develop her characters in this way.

There are many time jumps between the chapters, sometimes as many as 10 years pass, and while this forces the reader to pay attention and work out some of the missing details, it’s also a reinforcement of the unsettling nature of the displacement caused by war – though the years pass, the theme remains relevant and steady. (The time jumps may feel disruptive to some readers, but I assure you if you overlook it, your experience will be rewarding.)

It was easy for me to fall into a comfortable pace with the writing style. Alyan draws out of her words and thoughts with a captivating rhythm that fleshes out her characters and gives colour to their insecurities and rejoicings. The poetic prose of the novel adds an emotional depth to their stories, and makes SALT HOUSES a literary treasure.

Displacement and Affluence

Displacement is a major theme at the heart of this novel, and maybe even the reason Alyan explored the characters in the way she did. When we begin the story, Salma has already been affected by the war; she’s had to move away from her home into a new one in Nablus, leaving behind the things she prized. Coming from affluence allows Salma to rebuild her life; like purchasing a cup and tray set that reminded her of the set her mother gave her when she got married,

“Salma cried out when she saw the tray, pointed it out to the vendor. He refused to sell it without the coffee set and so she’d taken it all, walking home with the large, newspaper-swathed bundle. It was her first satisfaction in Nablus.” (Pg. 1)

The Yacoub family belongs to the wealthy middle class strata of the society, yet despite the comfort of privilege, they’re unsettled inside. They can never replace the home they’d lost, and the absence of that solid foundation reverberates through the generations to come – it becomes a part of their collective conscience, an itch in the background for the newer generations. Alyan makes an excellent point here – war affects everybody, even those who are wealthy and can replace the things they’d lost, because war’s biggest brutality is the chipping away of identity and leaving behind a fuzzy image where home and heritage should be. So, when their home is lost to war it becomes a distant place they can never return to, and it eventually turns into a quest to find out what once was, so someone can remember and put the pieces back together.

The title of the novel is an interesting one; it’s representative of the swift loss of home that many of the characters experience. In an interview, when discussing the inspiration behind it, Alyan said, “So I was going over different notes, and thinking about the themes that were most salient in the book, which words were repeated. Obviously there were houses, homes. And I thought about this one scene, where one of the characters talks about remembering all of the different houses that he and his family have lived in over the decades, and thinking of them as structures made of salt that the tide can come and erase. Salt houses. That was it.”

The members of the Yacoub family often have to change their home, several times due to war. After her marriage and political instability in Nablus, Alia moves to Kuwait where she feels lost and broken. Her husband Atef suffers from PTSD, yet eventually they collect their life together and build a happy home life. As the years go by, the life of an expatriate makes Alia long for home, but is it Nablus or Lebanon? Yet, the shifting of homes is not a predicament limited to the older generations. Their rebellious daughter Souad makes the move to Paris with the eclipse of the Kuwait war, and eventually to the United States where her brother Karam has moved, and later to Lebanon with her children. For the characters in SALT HOUSES, despite their affluence, there is no permanence when it comes to home.

Radicalization

 One of the characters in the novel is Salma’s son Mustafa, whose character represents how war affects young men who want to create change. He’s a handsome young man cocooned by his mother’s love, yet he also bears the responsibility of being the spokesman at his local mosque where men meet to discuss plans fight the oppressive forces. We see the mosque as a center of spirituality, prayer, enjoyment and education for the men, but it’s also the place where rebellion is incited, anger indulged in. Despite his religious facade, Mustafa’s faith is flawed – the same is true for some of the other characters. By creating characters with flawed faith-systems, Alyan does a fantastic job of making it clear – not every Muslim practices the faith with rigidity and a person’s relationship with faith hits highs and lows. For some, like Alia’s daughter Riham, faith is a solid pillar to hold on to in order to get through the ordeals in life, but for others like Mustafa it serves as a “tactical” option. I personally found this to be very realistic; being born Muslim or Arab doesn’t warrant a steadfast relationship with God. And when it comes to a life and generations shook by war, faith becomes strength for some, and a confused identity for others. The gap between generations is also another factor when it comes to religion, and even the veiling of women. While Alia opts to not cover or do her hijab (much to the dismay of Salma), she’s baffled by the tight clothing worn by her daughter’s generation, and equally bewildered by Riham’s religious inclining. The choice to cover or not lays bare another fact that many people take for granted – for many, many Muslim and Arab women, veiling is a choice.

There are so many other issues and truths that this novel touches upon, yet I feel my review doesn’t do it justice. In a nutshell, SALT HOUSES is a riveting story of a family hurled into unfamiliar grounds due to war, and the “intergenerational trauma” that seeps into their life. There is love, loss, family, and a bundle of letters that never get sent.

About the author:

Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American author, poet and practicing clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn. Salt Houses is her debut novel and is inspired by some of her own extended family experiences.

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