Salt Houses is a novel about the Yacoub family. The story follows the upper middle class Palestinian family through generations as they manage their relationships with each other, come to terms with displacement and deal with each other’s different political views that navigate their culture and religion.
Author Hala Alyan starts the story off in 1963 from the view point of Salma, the matriarch of the Yacoub family, on the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding. The reside in the West Bank in the city of Nablus, having fled years earlier from Jaffa because of war. Although Alia is the focal point of the novel, each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member which include her husband, children and grandchildren. The story weaves in and out of their lives where we meet characters as young adults and in some cases again in their old age.
In 1967, on the outbreak of the Six-Day War, the family is forced to leave their home once again. Salma joins their extended family in Jordan while Alia and her husband move to Kuwait. After the Gulf War of 1990 they are uprooted once again, this time to Beirut, Paris and Boston. Even in Beirut their fate isn’t certain when war breaks out in 2006.
As the Yacoub family struggle with displacement, they are also faced with everyday struggles that many families experience. Generational misunderstanding and contradictory beliefs lead to some family members down a more pious path in with radicalization threatening to corrupt one of them. On the other end of the spectrum we meet some family members with a completely liberal outlook on life. Despite the complexities of the characters and their lives, Alyan has written the story in a clear and simple way.
My favourite quote from the book is when Atef in his old age contemplates life in his garden, “What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.”
The one downside of the novel that I should point out is that it’s not a page turner. Not much happens. There is a lot happening behind the scenes action, but it all happens away from the reader. As a result the story is a little slow at the start and it takes a few chapters for the reader to really get hooked.
The novel does offers fresh perspectives and unique experiences from each of the characters and the political climate acts as the backdrop to the story and is not the main focus. The focus instead is on how this political climate changes the course of the family’s life. Overall though, this is a beautiful yet heart-breaking novel about displacement, love, loss and complex-family relationships.