‘Salt Houses’ – I found the title intriguing and when I read the synopsis of the book it started making sense…. I soon realised the beauty of the metaphor.
The book maps the experiences of a Palestinian family across 4 generations (from the 1960s to 2000s). It talks about displacement by making references to war and/or conflict and it is through the characters that the emotional upheaval that often accompanies this process is effectively brought to light by Hala Alyan. The Israel – Palestine unrest, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the terror attack of the twin towers of the world trade centre in America all lend a melancholic backdrop to the story.
Along with displacement, the book addresses the most natural human response to displacement - the need for belonging. Consider this paragraph where Alyan has brilliantly captured this need “She touches the sumptuous fabrics of a curtain display, plucking items off the shelves as she walks. Throw pillows, a juicer, picture frames. It is the third time, she realizes, that she’s buying furniture for a house, the third time she’s piecing together scattered, unnecessary objects, trying to build a life around them”.
This multi generational family novel very poignantly demonstrates how family bonds invariably become that one constant in an otherwise changing living situation. Through the narratives of the various characters one can see how these bonds are often challenged and yet they emerge stronger as time goes by. There are some very strong characters that emerge through the 4 generations – Salma, Alia, Saoud and Manar particularly stand out as formidable women with their own vulnerabilities yet an undefeatable resilience.
Alyan’s writing style is very evocative, almost lyrical : “What astonishment, then, to walk outside one morning with her tea, surveying the wasteland, only to see a sliver of sprouting; a weed, but still Salma fell to her knees and stroked it. She had the urge to run into the house, call for the children and Hussam, to show them something, at last, to lift their spirits. Instead she remained still, touching the sprout, recognizing in that moment that there were some things we are meant to keep for ourselves, too precious to share with others”.
I would highly recommend this novel as it provides much needed insight into a country that has been long forgotten as its on going political tensions with Israel fail to shock the world. It is sad to note that this turmoil is almost like a given, a taken for granted phenomenon. We need more writers like Alyan to bring to fore such stories. Although fiction, it does contribute in raising awareness and shattering pre conceived notions of a place and its people.