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Book Review: Salt Houses

By (May 4, 2017) No Comment

Salt Houses

by Hala Alyan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

There’s a subtle, unassuming power that accumulates in Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses, a gradual effect that’s two parts stage direction and one part hokum. The story centers around a Palestinian family we meet in their new home in Nablus, the family of Salma Yacoub: her husband Hussam, and her children Alia, Widad, and Mustafa. The family isn’t in Nablus by choice; years ago, they were driven out of their old home in Jaffa by the Israeli army, and as the novel opens, they’re living a tense and displaced life in their new home, although Salma’s thoughts often turn to the past in Jaffa:

Salma missed her home with a tenacity that never quite abated. She spent the first years in Nablus daydreaming of returning. The early days of summer, the vision of the house rising as the road coiled around the cliff. Inside, a miracle: everything as she’d left it, even the damp laundry she’d never gotten to hang up. She understood the flaw of these fantasies. The villa was gone, razed to the soil.

The neatness of that performance – the way the memories float along on the random current of the sentence and then stop abruptly in that raw double-tap of single syllables – is an effect Alyan obviously mastered on her own time before turning to this book, where it’s deployed to nearly note-perfect effect in every chapter. This is a heartfelt book but also an unobtrusively skillful one, making Salma’s family, including, eventually, Alia’s own husband and children, all the more moving by making them all flawed and relatable, concerned with the thousand little personal compromises exiles are forced to make.

The only family member who defies this trend and sometimes seems to verge into becoming a caricature is hot-headed, emotional Mustafa, who’s sometimes used as a demographic stand-in, like in an early scene of conversation with the charismatic firebrand imam named Bakri:

Something clicked within Mustafa: the imam held the key to something. The imam would be the one to change it – everything – for him. In that instant, Mustafa realized just how unhappy he was. How much like a pauper he’d always felt, peering inside a window, watching life carry on while he remained apart, separated by glass. From Alia and Atef, from Aya. He suddenly understood his boredom, the way hours seemed to stretch unbearably in front of him, that yes, yes, it was all bullshit. The waiting, the talking, the cigarettes, the coffee. What were they doing? The thought shook him with its violence. Sitting around while the years piled up, spending his father’s money and waiting. Waiting. While their land was gobbled up.

Alia and her husband Atef eventually move to Kuwait and continue trying – with a very sweetly-realized series of scenes – to wrest some kind of normal existence from their chaotic past … only to have chaos intrude again when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990 and scatters the family in half a dozen directions. And even in these later generations, so far and so irretrievably removed from that peaceful old house in Jaffa, Alyan smoothly conveys the constant see-sawing of hope and resentment at the heart of the exile’s life – an amazing feat for an author who was born in 1986 and has a few other things (poetry, teaching, clinical psychology) competing for her time. Multi-generational novels like Salt Houses can make for ominous debuts; their authors often have no other stories to tell, and it sometimes takes them many years (and many dreadful books) to find this out. Salt Houses is certainly impressive enough to have its readers eagerly watching to see what happens next.