In Palestine, Salma reads her daughter’s coffee dregs on the eve of her wedding, but only tells Alia part of what she foresees. The rest she will find out soon enough. Salt Houses, Hala Alyan’s debut novel, covers three family generations.
The first uprooting and loss comes with the Six Day War of 1967. The book follows the family through a series of relatively peaceful times intercepted by war for the next fifty years. Bit by bit and war by war, the family scatters to Kuwait City, Beirut, Paris, and Boston with different levels and approaches to how much they assimilate into their new cultures and how much they hold onto the old values and traditions.
She describes the war times – electricity cutting out every few hours, adults forbidding children to leave the house or even to go out on the balcony, men yelling at the television when it was on and shaking their heads, news reports with streaks of smoke from the airport, and planes dropping bombs “like eggs from their abdomens.”
In between, life resembles a normal pull and tug as children grow up wanting to stretch their wings and throw off old restrictions, as parents worry and disagree on how to handle the young ones, and as grandmother recalls the old ways or helps the young ones circumvent the rules. Normality lasts only until the next conflict.
The theme of the book is in a paragraph near the end. “What they say never changes. There is a war Alia knows. She understands this intuitively; in fact, it seems to her the only truth she holds immutable. There is a war. It is being fought and people are losing, though she is uncertain who exactly.”
Salt Houses sheds light on a question I’ve often asked when I’ve seen those reports of wars that seem interminable, “How do people live in that kind of atmosphere?” and puts a human face on what seems far away and can be forgotten once the newscast goes off.