“Salt Houses” by Hala Alyan; Houghton Mifflin; May 2017; 320 pp; $26
By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor
Writing poetry is very different from writing prose, but author Hala Alyan seems to have mastered both genres. She is the award-winning author of three poetry collections and has recently published “Salt Houses,” an elegant novel that follows several generations of a Palestinian family, set mainly in the Middle East.
The novel begins in 1963, with Salma reading the coffee grounds of her soon-to-be-wed younger daughter Alia. Salma is known for reading coffee grounds to predict a bride’s future and, when she sees an unsettled life in Alia’s future, she keeps that information to herself.
Prior to the book’s beginning, Salma and Hussam Yacoub have fled the Israeli city of Jaffa during the Palestinian mass exodus of 1948 and settled in Nablus, in the West Bank. Hussam has been dead for almost 10 years, having suffered from a long, lingering illness. Salma has an older daughter, Widad, who is already married, and a son Mustafa. Alia is marrying Mustafa’s best friend Atef. Both Salma and Hussam were devout Muslims; Salma regrets that her children do not worship Allah in the same way she does.
The Six-Day War of June 1967 — 50 years ago — plays a fairly important part in “Salt Houses.” During Israel’s siege of the West Bank, Mustafa and Atef are part of the Palestinian resistance and are arrested; Atef is released but Mustafa is lost and believed to be dead. Readers are aware that there is a story as to what happened to Mustafa, but only Atef knows; readers are enlightened late in the book when Atef recalls that event many years later in a poignant scene.
Alia and Atef follow Widad to Kuwait City soon after their wedding and eventually have three children while residing there. Salma has settled in Jordan after the Six-Day War. In 1990, Alia and Atef are forced to leave Kuwait for Beirut when Saddam Hussein invades the country; their grown children, two daughters and a son, scatter to different parts of the world.
Although the main characters of “Salt Houses” are Alia and Atef, the book is told from the point of view of nine members of the extended family: Salma; her children Alia and Mustafa; Atef; and Alia and Atef’s children and grandchildren. Throughout the book, the Yacoub family shows resiliency, with strong personalities and equally staunch family ties. They manage to have a good life in spite of being displaced from their homes on several occasions.
Alyan, who is a Palestinian-American psychologist and college professor, writes in a concise manner and yet readers will come to know and care for her characters. She has a great gift for storytelling, blending heartache and pain with family affection and loyalty. This fictional tale of immigrants’ struggles, with real historical events as the backdrop, is so interesting and well-told. The political aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not at all the focus of “Salt Houses.” Rather, it is a multi-generational story that gracefully explores the meaning of home and roots.
“Salt Houses” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.