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Salt Houses by Hala Alayan : When You are Forced to Run; and Run

19th September, 2017

Book Review : Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

The story of a Palestinian family undergoing forced and voluntary displacements because of no fault of their own.

Journey through Displacements

The novel starts in Nablus, Palestine, in 1963, with Salma reading the future in a coffee cup on her daughter Alia’s wedding day. The family had relocated to Nablus from Jaffa, which became a part of the new-Israel, fifteen years ago. Alia is married to Atef who is a friend of her brother, Mustafa. Salma is still grieving for Jaffa when the family members have to flee from Nablus after the Six-Day War in 1967. Salma joins the extended family in Jordan while Alia and her husband, Atef, move to Kuwait City and raise a family there. Alia’s  brother, Mustafa, is killed and this haunts Atef throughout his life. In 1990, Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait and the family is dispersed again. Alia and Atef’s children move to Paris, Boston and Beirut.

The structure of the novel is similar to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and told through the POVs of different family members. This technique works beautifully in shocking the reader about the forced and voluntary displacements the characters have to endure.

Coming to terms with grief

The novel gives you a lump in the throat every time the family members are forced to leave their home and start a new life. The novel makes you think about ‘what is home’; whether it is your origins or whether it is where your family is. If it is the former, what if that home exists no longer? If it is the latter, would the place where your family resides still be home if others in the area do not accept you; Is it home if you have no remnants of your past to hold onto? I also loved how the frequent changes cause permanent cracks in the minds of the characters and their relationship with one another. Alia and Atef’s marriage seems to bear the brunt of shocks that are a consequence of being ‘on-the-run’.

The Muslim Woman

Hala Alyan deserves a special applause for her depiction of the Muslim woman. I love books that strive to break stereotypes, The Windfall by Diksha Basu, being another recent example. Books as these are important for the Western audience to understand that Muslim women in many middle class families have the freedom to choose or not to choose the veil. While Alia chooses not to wear the veil, she cringes at her daughter, Souad’s dressing style.

“(Women) no longer wear the short skirts and feathered hair of previous decades, the style Alia had grown up with — tight sweaters, eyeliner, frosty lipstick — and still favors. Instead the women dress as Souad does, in too-tight jeans and leather. Alia finds it unattractive, pushy.”

 At the same time, Alia’s other daughter, Riham, is extremely devout and chooses to wear the veil. Riham is not an overly conservative person or someone with no faults, just because she embraces her religion. She is just as human as anyone else. I loved all the women characters in the book and each gives a new facet to the condition of women in displaced families.

Religion

Religion plays a major role in the novel. While Mustafa loves the mosque and his blood boils at the atrocities done against his religion, he is very much a simple man, staying in a house and in love with a woman who will never be accepted by his family or acquaintances. Later we see Souad and Riham as opposites in their view of dressing. However when Riham’s step son leans towards the teachings of Islamic extremists, she tries to get hold of the situation in every way she knows. In these brief scenes, Hala shows us that religion is one thing and fanatic activities in the name of a religion is something else. I think this is a very relevant topic to ponder upon in the present day.

Lack of Depth in the Historical Aspects

The historical threads explored in the book are similar to that of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (a favourite read this year); the main story is an emotional account of the family and the political and social commentary serves as a background music. Now the problem I had was, I was expecting a novel with a stronger emphasis on the historical inputs, like Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun or Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See. So I felt detached because I kept searching for what wasn’t there in the novel. So if you pick the book I urge you to look for an emotional story rather than a historical one.

Note to self : Don’t be swayed by blurbs and opinions of other authors on the back cover and form a mental picture before reading any novel.

Minor hiccups

I felt the Paris stint was unnecessary to the novel. It was neither expanded well enough nor duly ignored for the reader to not pay attention to it. The ending felt a bit rushed and the last generation in the family failed to win my heart like the previous generations.

Final Verdict :

I loved the book. I would recommend you to pick this and immerse yourself in the tumultuous lives of the Yacoubs, always on the run because of no fault of their own. Salt Houses would definitely touch your heart.

Title : Salt Houses
Author : Hala Alyan
Publisher : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication: 2017
Language : English
Pages : 320
Rating : 4/5

Disclaimer : Much thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.

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Salt Houses
This Post Has 15 Comments
  1. Great review – I really enjoyed this one too! Unlike you, I kinda like how the author wrote around the historical events. When reading War & Peace, I started to skim and then skip the parts with Russian Generals and Napoleon as characters. I can handle small doses of historical fiction stuff, like here, but an entire chapter = mentally check out.

    1. Yes, I enjoyed the book. Which girl are you talking about? The one whom Mustafa likes? She is only a very minor character. Mustafa dies at the beginning of the novel itself. So we don’t hear her story after that.

  2. I like the idea that this is structured like Homegoing since that structure worked so well for me in that book. I got a lump in my throat just reading your review about how this family has to keep leaving everything they know and start over so I can only imagine that I would be near tears a lot while reading the actual book.

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