Genre: Historical Fiction
“Nostalgia is an affliction,” states Alia, one of the primary characters in Hala Alyan’s book, Salt Houses. “Like a fever or a cancer, the longing for what had vanished wasting a person away.”
And therein lies one of the central themes of Alyan’s debut novel. The enduring sense of homesickness that afflicts those that are displaced and forced to re-create a new home in a foreign city. Alyan’s book follows the dispersal of four generations of a Palestinian family as they are exiled first from Jaffa to Nablus; then to Kuwait City; then to Amman; and finally to Paris, Boston and Beirut. Each home, burned into memory, “….. like structures made of salt, before a tidal wave comes and sweeps them away.” The restless search for home that you can never return to, that gets passed on from one generation to the next.
The psychological experience of the displacement of the Yacoub family mirrors that of many immigrants and refugees from around the world, albeit from a distinctly middle class perspective that does not need to worry about their financial means. But what Alyan shows us is that this does not discount or diminish the intergenerational trauma or pain that they experience. They struggle with the same issues of identity and the same clashes in culture. How does one stay connected to your cultural roots while still integrating into your new society?
Alyan is an expert storyteller, weaving together the Yacoub family’s experience, each chapter from a different character’s perspective. And while it is fascinating to get the same historical event told from each different perspective in each different generation, this is perhaps my only struggle with the novel. For as in many intergenerational sagas, by the time I get to the 3rd or 4th generation, my interest in the succeeding characters wanes. They don’t have the same depth as those that are carried through from the beginning.
But regardless, the novel is a must-read. First for its beauty — as a poet, Aylan’s words are rhythmic and her phrasing exquisite. And more importantly for its message. With our current political environment, it makes it even more urgent and more necessary to share these stories.