Salt Houses is a book with a tight, compact feel, despite its many characters, locales, and timelines. It follows the lives of one family, through four generations, along with a snapshot of Middle Eastern history from 1963 to 2014. The story begins with the wedding of Alia and Atef in Nablus in 1963. Alia was born in Jaffa but has grown up in Nablus after her family was forced out of Jaffa in the late 1940s. She is the adored youngest child of a widowed mother, marrying the man she loves, who is also the best friend of her brother, Mustafa. Alia is young and a bit flighty, too young to remember Jaffa or to have really experienced the loss that her parents and older siblings went through.
In 1967, Alia’s easy life in Nablus is upended by the Six Days War. Mustafa disappears and Alia and Atef end up settling in Kuwait City, where Alia’s older sister, Widad, lives. Deep cracks begin to develop in Alia and Atef’s marriage, even as they prepare to meet their first child. Atef is deeply traumatized by his imprisonment during the war and unable to tell Alia the truth about what happened to him or to her brother. Alia is unhappy in Kuwait and desperate to return to her former lifestyle. We see this stage of their lives through both Alia and Atef’s eyes and Alyan does an excellent job of painting them both sympathetically and yet accurately. It becomes easy to understand both of their perspectives. This is a talent that Alyan brings to the entire book as we move forward through time and into the next generation. We see Alia through the eyes of her growing children, a distant and unpredictable mother. If we were to learn of her only from her teenage daughter or, later, her grandchildren, it would be easy to see her as a sort of villain. But because we’ve been deep into her history, we’ve seen her through the eyes of her brother, her mother, and we’ve delved into her own thoughts, we have an understanding of Alia that her children and grandchildren do not.
The family makes a life for themselves in Kuwait. The children grow up in relative comfort, spending summers in Amman with their grandmother and extended family, until 1990 when violence reaches Kuwait. Souad, the youngest, runs away to Paris and into an ill-advised marriage, before ending up in Boston, along with her older brother Karam and his family. Riham, the eldest, settles into a safe marriage and life in Amman, where her parents have also followed after leaving Kuwait. As Alia ages, she slips into an early onset dementia and her children gather together once more, supporting their father and struggling with their complicated history with their mother who increasingly does not know who they are.
This is Alyan’s first book and, having read her most recent book, The Arsonists’ City, in January, it would be impossible for me to not compare them. What struck me in both is Alyan’s excellent depictions of sibling relationships. She so adeptly captures the complications, the shared history, the love, and frustration. The Arsonists’ City has a tighter focus, zeroing in on a nuclear family rather than the multi-generational style of Salt Houses, as well as a tighter focus on the political history of the Middle East. Salt Houses is, at times, perhaps trying to do too much. As someone with a pretty minimal knowledge of Middle Eastern history, I found myself having to do a lot of looking up to figure out or remind myself of what was happening in the Middle East at various times. The edition I read features a family tree at the beginning of the book but what I really needed was a map. This isn’t exactly criticism, because I don’t want to defend my own ignorance, but a little more context in certain spots would have been helpful. That said, this is a book that really brought some aspects of 20th century history alive for me. Events and places I only knew from history books and newspaper headlines have new meaning for me. As in The Arsonists’ City, Alyan excels at bringing a city to life and showing her readers what it might be to live there.