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Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR * Nylon * Kirkus Reviews * Bustle * BookPage
“Moving and beautifully written.” — Entertainment Weekly
“[Alyan is] a master.” — Los Angeles Review of Books
On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.
Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses follows three generations of a Palestinian family and asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.
“Beautiful . . . An example of how fiction is often the best filter for the real world around us.” — NPR
“Gorgeous and sprawling . . . Heart-wrenching, lyrical and timely.” — Dallas Morning News
“[Salt Houses] illustrate[s] the inherited longing and sense of dislocation passed like a baton from mother to daughter.” — New York Times Book Review
I can’t speak to this title without thinking about how palpably Hala Alyan presents the struggles, c
1948 was the establishment of Israel and the displacement of thousands of Palestinians, as this story picks one family and describes through various voices the upheavals and changes brought on by repeated displacements and emigrations, fortunes earned and lost, and the desire for home juxtaposed against the strength to move forward, again. From the first relocation from Jaffa to Nablus, as part of the UN relocation due to the new Israeli state, we hear from Salma Yacoub, still referring to her Nablus home as “the new house” some 17 years later in 1963, when reading coffee dregs from her daughter Alia’s cup, she sees an unsettled life. As this is the eve of Alia’s wedding, she keeps the predictions to herself, but never forgotten. Soon enough, again uprooted in the aftermath of the 6 day war in 1967, Salma is seeing that her predictions, one by one, are coming to light. With Alia, her husband and children relocating to Kuwait, her brother finding political and military influences that are unavoidable, and danger and uncertainty anywhere, Alia becomes the narrative voice as she presents the struggles, the joys and dreams, and a sense of home that is just temporary, but necessary at the moment.
Each moment is fully realized, and historical and personal changes and events push Alia and her family further and further from that home in Jaffa. Saddam Hussein and the war of 1990 again brought the family to point of crisis with a loss of land, fortunes and home, and from here they start to scatter to varying points, including the US. Each moment brings a new change of place, of voice and new struggles as setting up a life and assimilating into yet another new country, with new expectations, changing levels of acceptance and challenges ranging from simple and obvious (language) to more wrought with difficulty (safe housing, racism, gangs, social acceptance) and layered with misguided or uninformed opinions. Still, that nugget of “home” and just what it means, what it will become, and just where it exists now are omnipresent.
I can’t speak to this title without thinking about how palpably Hala Alyan presents the struggles, conflicts and questions from each of her characters, anyone who has ever moved from a childhood home will instantly connect to the emotions of the characters as they struggle with the sense of being suddenly untethered and removed from familiar and comforting. When you then follow this family and story and see the repeated uprooting, even as they try to clutch at the familiar, the determination and energy to move on and do it all again, for the choice to do nothing is not an option, the simple act of putting one foot forward along a wholly unfamiliar path is a quietly laid out and provides moments to cheer, wonder, mourn and learn. What Alyan has done here is to highlight and show the humanity in these characters, while their language, situations and faith may differ: there is no difference in the hopes and dreams that they have: home, family, love, opportunity and security, all while trying not to lose those connections in the varying steps made to assimilate, relocate or even rebuild as the story moves on.
A wonderful debut, Hala Alyan uses words precisely to present scene and description, the writing moves between wholly lyrical moments that set a tone, mixed neatly with historic facts and events presented with an ‘on the ground’ sense and non-western view of the moments that were often, at best, just marked at yet another in the long line of “middle East quandaries”. Having little familiarity with a perspective that brings a view of Palestine and her people so accessibly, I can only hope for more to come from her pen.
I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.