There are many ways to approach a review of this book. “Salt Houses” is about a family constantly displaced through the generations by war. It is about the loss of a cultural identity and the struggle to find one. It is about finding who you are and being true to yourself no matter how difficult it may be for those around you. I prefer to think of it as a love story.
Steeped in the conflicts of the Middle East from after World War II to present day, the story follows four generations of the Yacoub family from Palestine to Kuwait, Amman, Paris, Boston and Beirut; each generation moving further and further away from their Palestinian roots. Despite the novel beginning with Alia’s parents, the patriarch and matriarch of this family are Atef and Alia. Early into their marriage, both suffer a great loss but are unable to mourn together. Adrift in their grief, they rebuild their relationship into a strong but rocky foundation for the next generations. At the heart of the story, is the relationship between them, their children and grandchildren.
Atef wants to tell his children that they don’t understand, that their view from the sidelines is incomplete, that somehow in the murky cave of his marriage – – not exactly happy but not unhappy either, given to strain, months at a time when Alia retreats into her fury and Atef into himself – – is a miraculous conch of love, something unpolished but alive, pulsing.
Each chapter switches point of view from family member to family member through the years and, while sometimes a little difficult to follow, this gives a richer more complex portrait of each character. Weaving between each nuclear family and extended family summer vacations, the relationships between the characters and their struggles both internal and within the family at large are explored; wounds are poked and fires are stoked but there is always an underlying sense of solidarity.
Epic multi generational books are always at their most compelling for me when you begin to see how the characters become who they are. This novel is about what Atef and Alia send out into the world. It’s about how their fears, grief, love and hope shape the lives of their children and how those children shape the lives of their children.
Hala Alyan is an award-winning poet, and that is certainly evident in her writing here. This is an achingly beautiful book. From city to city, and house to house, the Yacoub family build and rebuild their lives each carrying with them the memory of the homes they have made together and apart.