On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, Salma reads the young girl’s future in the dregs of a coffee cup. She realises that her daughter, Alia, will have an unsettled life, and though she lies to ease Alia’s mood it becomes clear that the portentous message found at the bottom of the porcelain cup defined a future of conflict and upheaval for the next three generations of the Yacoub family.
Told through the viewpoints of eight family members, sprawling across four generations, three continents, and more than 60 years, Salt Houses is the dazzling debut novel from Palestinian American author and psychologist, Hala Alyan.
Before we learn more of Alia and the life her mother foresaw, the book fast-forwards two years in the chapter dedicated to Alia’s only brother, Mustafa. Living alone and aimlessly in his family home, he finds new purpose in the heated “boys only” meetings at a local mosque, which we see shape him into an impassioned, patriotic young man. The last we hear of Mustafa are the words “We must fight”, echoing across the crowded mosque as he delivers a speech, his heart having been moved by the saddening, all too familiar tale of the local Imam’s childhood.
We next switch to 1967 Kuwait City, where sick, pregnant Alia is visiting her sister Widad. The outbreak of the Six-Day War during Alia’s stay causes the loss of her home in Palestine, and her husband Atef travels to Kuwait where the family relocates – although Alia’s resentment of the foreign city prevents her from ever really feeling home.
The Yacoubs are once again displaced following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and family members are scattered across the globe as far afield as Lebanon, France and the US as we are exposed to snippets of each of their lives, some chapters spanning years and others weeks. We are introduced to Atef and Alia’s children; Riham, Karam and Souad, whose lives we follow from childhood. We learn of the siblings’ childhood and youth, and later their adulthood and the upbringing of their own children, Abdullah, Linah, Manar and Zain.
By Alyan dedicating each chapter to the viewpoint of a different character, we are able to gain a detailed insight into the individual lives of each family member from their own perspective as well as the perspective of others and it is interesting to see their varying personalities and psyches.
The principle theme of the struggles of war and displacement overwhelms the book, yet each character faces their own, smaller-scale internal struggles, be it regular nightmares of past torture in Israeli cells or the emotional strife of raising a family in a foreign land; however as time progresses, we see the personal issues becoming more and more familiar – the overshadowing feeling of not belonging, teenagers torn between tradition and the delights of a western life, the thin line between right and wrong, the longing for a home that no longer exists.
Early on in the book we learn of Mustafa’s fate, a predicament with harrowing familiarity for Palestinians, and one which haunts Alia and Atef profoundly throughout the entire story. Although largely undiscussed within the family, the mysterious “Uncle Mustafa” is discovered by the young Linah and Zain during the Israel-Lebanon war through letters written by their grandfather Atef, and Mustafa’s presence through the stack of letters is a force that later helps the adult Manar connect with the homeland she never knew. The letters become something of a metaphor for acceptance throughout the book, first helping Atef overcome his psychological trauma and later tying the completely westernised, modern younger generation to the country they grew up alien to.
Of all the characters within the book, Atef is my favourite. He enters the novel as the boy-next-door type, middle class Palestinian, fiancée to Alia, and best friend to Mustafa. Simple and likeable enough, his relationships with Alia and Mustafa are light and refreshing, until he arrives in Kuwait a broken man and we begin to learn more of his life as a displaced Palestinian. The horrors of his constant nightmares and the loss of his best friend and brother-in-law shadow his life, and even whilst raising his children he sees glimmers of Mustafa and his former life.
His unwavering love for Alia is almost saddening and he remains faithful and stoic through her transition from a rebellious, care-free girl to a stubborn, moody and troubled mother and later a dementia-ridden old woman. However, beneath Atef’s love for his family, his quiet, “gentle Jiddo” (grandad) demeanour, there is always an underlying feeling of guilt, remorse and anger, and although not always explicitly described, his inner feelings are evident to the reader. Although kind, gentle and loving, Atef’s demons constantly torment him and the worry he carries for his family as well as the overwhelming guilt he hides is touching.
By making it a story of displacement, of people who escaped their homeland and made new lives rather than staying, Hala Alyan makes Salt Houses a painfully relatable story to people everywhere. Rather than a story exclusively of Palestinian strife, the book highlights the emotional trauma passed down through generations of immigrants and displaced peoples everywhere, and the struggle of not belonging.
Tear-jerking and utterly spell-binding, Salt Houses is an absolute must-read.