BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, May 2017
Salt Houses is a dazzling debut about four generations of the Yacoubs, a Palestinian family originally from Jaffa. Told from multiple points of view, the novel offers a unique perspective on Arab displacement, assimilation and the very notion of home. At the same time, it puts a human face on a conflict that many of us need to better understand.
The Yacoubs were relocated from Jaffa to Nablus before the novel even begins. The story opens in 1963, 15 years after this first relocation and just as Salma is reading the future in coffee grounds on her daughter Alia’s wedding day. Though Salma tries to soften the message she detects, it soon becomes clear that the family will experience further displacements. After the Six-Day War (1967), they are forced to leave their home. Salma joins extended family in Jordan, and Alia and her husband, Atef, relocate to Kuwait where they raise a family. After Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the family scatters once again; this time the grown children of Alia and Atef, now with families of their own, disperse to Paris, Boston and Beirut.
Palestinian-American author Hala Alyan, who is also a practicing psychologist, balances the ordinary joys and burdens of family life with the deeper clashes of culture and homesickness that occur as the Yacoubs spread across the globe. Whether she is depicting the stormy marriage between Alia and Atef or their daughter Widad’s concerns over her stepson’s interest in the more extreme practitioners of Islam, Alyan serves her story well through precise, almost poetic language and empathy toward her characters.
Though the novel is not overtly political, both Alia and Atef are haunted by memories of Alia’s brother, Mustafa, who died in an Israeli jail. But nostalgia is an indulgence they can ill afford. Transience is their way of life, and resilience is their legacy to their children. Salt Houses speaks to the specificity of the Palestinian diaspora, but it also mirrors the experiences of immigrants and exiles all over the world, making it very much a book for every reader.