Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: May 2nd 2017
There are plenty of times when fiction ventures into territory that is unfamiliar—in fact, that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. But Salt Houses, the debut novel from Hala Alyan is about a subject that I almost can’t wrap my mind around. The fact of having been driven out, by force or war, from not just your home, but virtually every country where you’ve settled. For Salma’s family this is their life. They are Muslims and in the span of fifty years they are pushed from Israel to the West Bank to Kuwait to Jordan to Lebanon. The novel passes through the years and the lives of Salma’s daughters and their daughters and their daughters as they move from country to country. Forced migration is the keystone of their family’s history as told by a member of each generation.
Before the novel begins Salma, her husband and their three children are forced out of their home in Israel due to the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Now it is 1963, they live in the West Bank and the youngest daughter, Alia, is getting married. Four years later and war has entered the West Bank and brought the death of Mustafa, Alia’s beloved brother and her husband’s best friend. This death will be an unexpected, but pivotal part of the family’s history. They split between Kuwait and Jordan, until Sadaam Hussein invades Kuwait and they move again. By the time the novel ends Salma’s great-granddaughters live in places like Boston, London and even Beirut. Some maintain their close ties to tradition, but for others the only movement is forward and the past is something to be forgotten.
What gives Salt Houses its intimacy is that the focus is not violence or the specifics of Middle Eastern conflict. Rather it is the constant struggle to retain a sense of self when one of the most basic premises of that sense—where am I from?—is lost. This could be enough to sink the novel but Alyan chooses to play it off against another foundational dynamic that can be just as shifting and hard to understand—the mother-daughter relationship. She balances the unfamiliar concept of displacement with an all-too familiar reality for a lot of us. For each generation there is the push and pull of tradition, with mothers trying to pass on values that many daughters are determined to rebel against. In this way, Alyan beautifully melds the universality of family relationships with the singularity of Muslims uprooted time and again from their homes. For those of us who have never had to contemplate leaving our home, friends and possessions behind it is a much needed glimpse into the plight of families who have no choice but to escape for their own safety and then must deal with being unwelcome outsiders wherever they go. Salt Houses left me weighted with sadness, but very glad I read it.