Salt Houses is a novel that eventually comes full circle, as it follows the female members of a Palestinian family as they flee, move, marry and cope with constantly being and feeling outside where they belong, including between generations and even between siblings.
Each chapter is titled with the name of one of the family, beginning with Salma, the mother of Alia, in Nablus, Palestine, the town she and her husband Hussam and their children fled to in 1948, following the Nakba (catastrophe). Alia is a child of war, barely three years old when they had to flee.
The opening lines are an indication of what is to come and intrigue us to want to know more, they remind me of a visit to Palestine where I first heard about this cultural divination practice, Tasseography, the art of reading coffee grinds, a ritual that dates back thousands of years.
“When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie.”
Alia’s older sister is married and lives in Kuwait, a land Alia is reluctant to visit, but when she does in 1967, finds she is unable to return to Palestine due to “the Setback” (the Six-Day-War), thus her children will know a home and culture, even though connected to her heritage, very different from her own.
As each generation makes a move, Hala Alyan takes the reader on an emotional journey of perseverance and loss, against a background of political manoeuvring. While the narrative avoids the conflict and brutality of war and deplacement, we become witness to the separation of a family from its roots, its culture, its land, and in particular the effect on a Palestinian family of the founding of Israel and the conflicts that followed that caused them to become refugees, firstly in their own country and latterly in neighbouring countries.
The separation is not just from their land and traditions, but between perceptions, as family members find it difficult to understand the yearnings of their elders and parents find it difficult to understand the foreigners their have become to them. Fortunately, like with many families, solace can sometimes be found for a child with their grandparent, those who have seen too much to be surprised by anything anymore, who have arrived at acceptance without judgement.
Salt is referred to throughout, invoking memories of family living near the sea displaced inland; fathers who “salted everything after that, even his water,” houses lost, eroded like salt; lives soothed by and almost taken by immersion in salt water. It is everpresent.
“The porcelain surface of the teacup is white as salt; the landscape of dregs, violent.”
Through it all Alia’s husband harbours a secret that torments him, one that he lives with by regularly writing letters that are never sent, seeking atonement.
The novel traverses with diligence a difficult period in the history of Palestine and the Middle East, demonstrating the resilience of humanity to survive, the sacrifices that are made and the cultural poverty that is experienced giving rise to the insatiable desire for families to remain connected, not just to each other but to the small yet important things, the traditional rice dishes, the olive, the orange tree, the desire to keep flowers blooming, no matter where they find themselves.
Their homes may crumble, but their spirits continue to reignite and flourish, wherever their heads may lie.
Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American author, poet and practicing clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn, who spent her childhood moving between the Middle East and the US. Salt Houses is her debut novel and is inspired by some of her own extended family experiences.
“I definitely think there was an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations” Hala Alyan, NPR interview.
Dreams, Displacement & DNA: Talking With Hala Alyan About ‘Salt Houses’ What happens when displacement enters your DNA? by ·
Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley. I originally reviewed this book for Bookbrowse.