Salt Houses Review: Making Magic out of Exile

Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been woman-crushing on psychologist, poet and writer Hala Alyan for years now. So I was especially pleased to see the Palestinian-American’s debut novel, Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2017), receive heaps of well-deserved praise from everyone including the LA Review of Books to the National.

The book has garnered so much attention in literary circles, it’s even made it on to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s summer reading list. (Note that I interviewed Alyan about her book for Al Jazeera English. The Q&A, which I was ridiculously thrilled to put together, is here).

At its core, Salt Houses is a family drama about the multigenerational-trauma triggered by displacement. The novel, which starts in Nablus with the Six-Day War of 1967 and ends in Beirut with the Lebanon War of 2006, tells the story of the Palestinian diaspora through one well-to-do family, the Yacoubs.

Salt Houses takes us on multiple journeys with eight members of the family as Alyan expertly shifts generations and voice with each chapter. We move with the Yacoubs from Kuwait City and Amman to Boston and beyond, experiencing the intricacies of the aftermath of forced (or self-imposed) exile.

The novel opens with the matriarch of the family, Salma, reading her daughter Alia’s coffee cup, knowing instantly that “she must lie.” Alia is about to marry, but things won’t start or end well. This vivid opening scene—a familiar one to any Middle Easterner who’s had aunts, mothers and grandmothers read their coffee cups—sets the ominous tone for the entire book.

The plot is vast, with each character experiencing their own web of personal conflict. Salma grieves the loss of her husband and her home in Jaffa. Mustafa, her son, is drawn to the mosque, not out of faith, but for purpose and belonging (“..Mustafa spends Fridays in the mosque but his attitude suggests it’s a social duty, a shared performance with the neighborhood men). Alia must comfort her sister in a claustrophobic, “oppressive” Kuwait on the verge of an invasion whilst struggling with her own marriage and pregnancy. And Atef, Alia’s husband, conceals his own suffering in tens of letters he addresses to no one.

Cutting through the various inner and outer conflicts destabilizing the Yacoubs is the perpetual search for home and an overwhelming sense of a lack of belonging. This is a book that brings much-needed light to the pain experienced by “privileged” or “middle-classed” refugees, versus refugees whose only choice is a dilapidated camp. The Yacoubs are clearly well-off, but that doesn’t shield them from the suffering associated with displacement.

(When I spoke to Alyan about the novel, we quipped about how the timing of publication seemed cosmic, considering Trump’s travel ban, Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, etc.)

The prose in Salt Houses is nothing short of magical: Alyan has said that she approached the book as if she were writing hundreds of poems. Though surgically selected, the words flow beautifully, as if Alyan weaved them together until they morphed from paragraph to poem and from short story to novel.

I’ve noted before that Arab writers have entered a new nahda in fiction. Alyan, who’s already working on her second book—another multi-generational family drama—sits very comfortably with the top tier of novelists from the region who are exploding with talent and ambition. And she’s only just got started.

This is a literary voice you’ll want to pay attention to.


Hala Alyan by Beowulf Sheehan

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