Summary and book reviews of Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses

by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan X
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
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  • First Published:
    May 2017, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2018, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Claire McAlpine

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About this Book

Book Summary

From a dazzling new literary voice, a debut novel about a Palestinian family caught between present and past, between displacement and home.

On the eve of her daughter Alia's wedding, Salma reads the girl's future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia's brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can't escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia's children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.

Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand - one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can't go home again. 

SALMA

Nablus
March 1963

When Salma peers into her daughter's coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie. Alia has left a smudge of coral lipstick on the rim. The cup is ivory, intricate spirals and whorls painted on the exterior in blue, a thin crack snaking down one side. The cup belongs to a newer set, bought here in Nablus when Salma and her husband, Hussam, arrived nearly fifteen years ago. It was the first thing she'd bought, walking through the marketplace in an unfamiliar city.

In a stall draped with camelhair coats and rugs, Salma spotted the coffee set, twelve cups stacked next to an ibrik with a slender spout. They rested upon a silver tray. It was the tray that gave Salma pause, the triangular pattern so similar to the one her own mother gave her when she first wed. But it was gone, the old tray and coffee set, along with so many of their belongings, the dresses and walnut furniture and Hussam's books. All left behind in that villa, painted the color ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
In Salt Houses, Hala Alyan charts the diverging paths of one family through a century of violence and upheaval in the Middle East. Beginning with Salma and Hussam, we follow four generations of Palestinians torn from their homeland, whose wealth and privilege cannot shield them from the tumult of war—or from the more personal strife every family endures. The novel is, in particular, the story of strong women: of sisters, mothers, and daughters who chafe against each other just as often as they lean on each other for support. Alia is fiery and independent in her youth and never loses that spirit, even as she enters her final years; her youngest daughter is so much like her that each enrages the other, while her elder daughter ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Salt Houses.
You can see the full discussion here.


Alia thinks to herself that "nostalgia is an affliction." What do you think she meant by that? Do you agree or disagree, and why?
I think she felt that nostalgia for a physical home at least inhibited the ability to make a new one with those she loved. It also was painful for her and so better to suppress than suffer. - vickic

Did you find Alia, Atef and Salma's secret preference for one of their children a realistic portrayal of how parents feel about their children--and do you understand why each of these parents favored the particular child they did?
I think this special feeling varies over time. At one time or another a parent feels more on the same wavelength with one or another child or grandchild. But usually over the course of a lifetime, it evens out if the parent is aware of this and ... - audrey1

Do you agree the author missed an opportunity to provide the reader with a more realistic picture of their lives?
I agree with acstrine, based on media coverage our understanding of Palestinians is either as refugees or terrorists. The author has given us another perspective, one more in line pehaps with our own social standings. I found this very realistic ... - scgirl

Do you agree with Atef's interpretation of a life? If not, what is yours?
I agree that those we love cannot save us, but loving others can. It is our reaching out and making connections with those around us that gives meaning to our lives. Atef's life is defined by the love he felt for his friend Mustafá, his wife and ... - janeto

Do you think Atef prefers to be an observer of life rather than a participant? How does his approach to life differ from that of his wife?
The last time Atef was a "participant", he goaded his best friend and the brother of his wife into staying to participate in the Six Day War. He then "gave up" his brother-in-law, who died as a result. In addition to feeling guilty, perhaps, Atef ... - acstrine

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Readers travel through each section of the narrative – from country to country – with a different family member. The story jumps forward in time, often skipping years, to coincide with significant events, both historical and familial, which keeps the storytelling compelling and intriguing. In this way, writer Hana Alyan creates a unique perspective of the effect of political conflict on families. Rather than bringing readers to the brutality of war, we bear witness to the separation of a family from its roots, placing us inside the heart of one particular family.   (Reviewed by Claire McAlpine).

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Media Reviews

Bustle, "15 New Authors You're Going To Be Obsessed With This Year"
Salt Houses illuminates the heartache and permanent unsettledness experienced by refugees all over the world, reminding readers of the burdens and the blessings of home.

The Millions
In her debut novel, Alyan tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This heartbreaking and important story examines displacement, belonging, and family in a lyrical style.

Booklist
This is a moving story about a family's battle to salvage what remains when their home is taken away.

Library Journal
This timely historical does for the Palestinians what Khaled Hosseini did for the people of Afghanistan. By placing readers inside the hearts and minds of one Arab family scattered from Paris to Boston to Lebanon, she beautifully illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. These lives full of promise and loss will feel familiar to any reader; Alyan's excellent storytelling and deft handling of the complex relationships ensures that readers will not soon forget the Yacoub family.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Unexpected, deeply moving...this journey is well worth taking.

Author Blurb Aline Ohanesian, author of Orhan's Inheritance
Reading Salt Houses is like having your coffee grounds read: cosmic, foreboding and titillating all at once. In this magnificent debut, Alyan's powerful and poetic voice guides us into the dark recesses of history and leads us right up to the present tensions between East & West, the modern & ancestral, the hopeless and the hopeful.

Author Blurb Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalkers' Guide to Dancing
Hala Alyan's Salt Houses flies like a searchlight between history and fiction, unearthing the life of a single displaced Palestinian family among the rubble and illuminating it so deeply, so brilliantly, we cannot help but connect the story's richly imagined past to our very real present.

Author Blurb Cristina García, author of King of Cuba and others
Powerful, lyrical, and deftly layered with multiple voices, Hala Alyan has done the near impossible: illuminated a half-century of wrenching history with great intimacy.

Author Blurb Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane
This is a book with the power to both break and mend your heart.

Reader Reviews

Becky H

Salt Houses
The meaning of the title is noted three fourth of the way through the book when the family patriarch, Atef, reminisces, “the houses glitter whitely…like structures made of salt before a tidal wave sweeps them away.” His family – 4 generations – ...   Read More

Iris F

Meaningful and Well Written
This was a meaningful and well written book. My heart went out to this family and I was moved by the women who took their food and customs with them wherever they went to make every new residence a home. As a Jew it was difficult to see the ...   Read More

Leia Lona

Timely intergenerational story
I enjoyed the overall story of this Middle Eastern family as they dealt with the impact of war on their lives over 50 years. I am a fan of these types of stories and also enjoy immigrant stories as well. The family tree in the front was helpful in ...   Read More

Linda Locker

Challenging and timely story of the Middle East
Salt Houses is a difficult story and the author did not shy away from difficult situations and family conflicts. It is the story of displacement and yearning for something called “home.” The book covers almost fifty years in the life of a ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Makloubeh

MakloubehWar and political divisions are not the only reasons for people living in exile from their families, but they are often why people must leave in haste and abandon everything behind them. Sometimes homes are destroyed by war or, as with Alia's parents in Hala Alyan's novel Salt Houses, they are occupied following invasion. What can these people take with them even as they are forced to leave all tangible things behind? One thing is the memory of their favorite dishes and, wherever they make their home, they do what they can to reconstruct the classic dishes of their culture, and of their family tradition. Grandmothers and mothers hand down recipes to their daughters, who participate in the rituals and preparations of these ...

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