“When it happens, you must find a way to remember.” That admonition is the theme of Salt Houses, Hala Alyan’s tale of a Palestinian family spanning the years 1963 to 2014.
The words come from Salma, the family matriarch. Her daughter doesn’t understand what she means, but we get a good idea as we follow succeeding generations of these Arabs. Scattered from Kuwait to Amman to Beirut to America, they gradually abandon their religious traditions, moral codes, even their language under the influence of Western culture.
I read the novel with mixed feelings. This seems to be a class of monied Palestinians, walled off from the desperate members of their race. Though the story evolves against the backdrop of Middle Eastern conflicts, these people live in a bubble, watching the endless wars on television news while their compatriots suffer. The storyline of Mustafa, the family’s only war casualty, gets buried in other events. In fact, all the male characters seem to exist on the periphery of family life.
The female characters, however, are well-drawn and interesting. Alia, wife of a professor, is a prickly woman with a spoiled daughter with whom she is in constant conflict. Another daughter remains deeply religious, though her marriage to a widower with a son disturbs Alia. The women strive to maintain family unity in scenes surrounding birthdays and cultural observances, worrying that their kids are either being radicalized by Islamists, or corrupted by foreigners.
Alyan is a fine narrator who gives us a good sense of Arabic traditions and family life. Sadly, the book’s pervasive foul language and profanity are constant suggestions that we are witnessing a dwindling culture, much like that of Native Americans. I found myself wishing the author had opened her window to it more.