Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses reviewed by
Strategic Partnerships Manager Pauline Lemasson
Back in July, the Library’s first Writer-in-Residence Viet Thanh Nguyen spoke about being a refugee during his talk at the Library as part of his presentation of his newly edited collection The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. He asked, how long can a person claim the title of refugee, and can one continue to do so even after attaining middle class status? A poignant question posed by Nguyen, who remembers being separated from his parents for several months when they first arrived in the U.S. as a refugee family, and who will later win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Nguyen wants to hold on to his status as a refugee, partly to honor the path he and his family took to come to their new country, but perhaps more importantly to challenge our perceptions of who a refugee is and can later become.
Hala Alyan’s does a similar thing with her debut novel Salt Houses, a beautifully rendered saga that traces the displacement of a Palestinian family through the multiple places they move to and the subsequent generations that follow. This is not a story about a displaced family that find themselves in limbo and lingering in a tented encampment. However, their middle class standing doesn’t protect them from the deeply painful sense of longing that comes from the loss of home and country, possibly forever.
Each chapter is devoted to a member of this family, opening with that of the matriarch, Salma, in 1963 in Nablus, Palestine, after they moved from Jaffa. The mother longs for her former home she knows she will never return to, her sadness temporarily abated as she prepares for the wedding of her youngest daughter. As the story flows from one family member to another across decades of time, the reader gets drawn into the intricacies and conflicts like in any good family drama genre. With Alyan’s keen observation, even a well-worn battle between a mother and her teenaged daughter over what the latter should wear is nuanced because of the inherited trauma of what has been lost and taken away.
I was drawn to Alyan’s book because of an NPR interview that she did in 2017 where she talks about the importance of objects, especially for people displaced from their homes and countries. One of the book’s opening scenes describes Salma buying a coffee set in a market, a simple act infused with significance because it reminds her of a set that was lost after her family’s many moves. Alyan builds her book on small moments like these, against the backdrop of the larger landscape of war and conflict, that make a truly engaging read with many truths and insights.
Hala Alyan is the Library’s Fall 2018 Visiting Fellow and will speak at the Library on Wednesday 10 October about her novel-in-progress The Arsonists’ City.