Book Review: Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses provides an interesting and vital perspective: the Palestinian diaspora and the emotional toll emigration takes on those forced to wander from country to country.

Through the lived experiences of three generations of a Palestinian family, Salt Houses asks the reader to confront the concept of home:  where is home when you have been displaced by war? Can a refugee create a new home elsewhere, even as one’s own offspring reject the values on which their culture is based? How does one maintain family bonds strained by constant upheaval? As the grandchild of emigrants who fled civil war in Belfast, Northern Ireland, these questions resonated with me.

It’s important that Salt Houses is told from the viewpoint of a moderate Palestinian family that seeks to protect its relatives, especially its sons, from jihadists—and who are deeply suspicious of the imans whipping those boys and young men into a frenzy of anti-Israeli violence. Hala Alyan succeeds in creating characters who are far from the stereotype of rock-throwing terrorists. The Yacoub family are well off, with middle-class aspirations, romances, and jobs—and a snobbish disdain for their own compatriots living in refugee camps.

From a writing perspective, several criticisms: there were too many dream sequences, which took me out of the story. Also, I did not get a sense of what many of the characters wanted. The notable exception was Alia, who is desperate to leave Kuwait and live in Amman, even as she wrestles with a deep homesickness for her childhood home in Nablus. Finally, the occasional switch to the present tense was jarring. These issues are the reason I only gave the book 4 stars.

Anyone interested in fictional representations of Middle East history will enjoy Salt Houses.

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