REVIEW: ‘SALT HOUSES’ BY HALA ALYAN

More than three generations of the Yacoub family scattered from Nablus to Amman, from Kuwait to Beirut and even to Boston and Paris. A beautifully woven story of belongingness, family and the impossibility of coming back home amidst rifles and explosives, enraged boys and horrible things done to girls.

Published by Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing Company in 2017, ‘Salt Houses’ by award winning author of three poetry books, Hala Alyan, was longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize and was named ‘Book of the Year’ by NPR, NYLON and Kirkus Reviews.

A visit to an aunt in the smeltering city of Kuwait turns out to be horrible as Alia stares wide eyed at the repeated images of explosions, dirty corpses and declarations of defeat at the end of the sixth day.

Along with a Mustafa-less grieving Atef, comes the realisation that there’s no going back to Nablus, to home.

Throughout the years with nightmares, unposted letters and summer holidays in Amman, when Alia and Atef have finally settled; the children: Riham, the older, calm and religious one; Karam, the kind and responsible one and Souad, the stubborn and rebellious one form their own lives scattered around Amman, Boston and Paris.

In the 2000s, with divorce and a school teacher replacing ‘terrorists’ with ‘Arabs’, the Yacoub family is again brought together in the blue apartment and the green apartment in Beirut.

The novel starts with Salma and her children- Alia and Mustafa, and continues till Alia’s grand-grand-child.

All the twelve chapters are narrated by members of the family throughout the generations, expect for Karam and Zain, the successive males of the family, which is slightly disappointing as there’s always a glimpse of Mustafa coming back through them.

The book portrays stories within stories -the relationships between each other, the struggles of taking decisions, choosing partners, raising children, leaving and returning, and remembering.

It would become the girl’s most endearing and exasperating quality, how she could become enamored of things already gone.

Set in the very-present ground of wars and invasions- the Arab-Israeli 6 day war in 1967,the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein, the terrorist attacks of 2001– the novel prominently depicts hope, bravery, disappointment, grief, survival guilt, love, in so many different forms; and the parallel existence of surety and confusion of belongingness, the urge to find out the roots- scouring through old cities long left behind, only to come to the realisation that except the memories, nothing left behind remains the same.

It feels wondrous at the end of the novel that in a few hundred pages, Alyan showed us the lifetimes of so many different characters and cities. Beginning with young Alia, a day before her marriage, to a great grand mother Alia, looking over Manar feeding her little baby. From a vast sandy desert to a city rich with white Bunglows.

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