From a dazzling new literary voice, a debut novel about a Palestinian family caught between present and past, between displacement and home
“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.”
—Aline Ohanesian, author of Orhan's Inheritance
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.
Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize
An NPR Best Book of 2017
One of NYLON's Best Fiction Books of 2017
One of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2017
One of Bustle's 17 Best Fiction Books of 2017
One of BookPage's Best Books of 2017
An Indie Next Pick
“Moving and beautifully written, Alyan’s debut chronicles three generations of a Palestinian family as they face two life-altering displacements – the first after 1967’s Six-Day War, and the second following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.”
“Spring's most powerful novel...mystical, compelling...sweeping.”
—Town & Country
"[Salt Houses] illustrate[s] the inherited longing and sense of dislocation passed like a baton from mother to daughter."
—New York Times Book Review
“Some family stories we pass on, adding chapters like rooms to a house; others are burned into our subconscious. Poet Hala Alyan's ambitious debut novel, Salt Houses follows the scattered generations of one Palestinian family for whom 'nostalgia is an affliction,' moving from the Six-Day War and a future glimpsed in a daughter's lipsticked coffee cup, to 9/11 and its aftermath.”
“Alyan is doing important work through this novel...Salt Houses can be read very simply as a family drama, proving Alyan’s talent as a master of both the family drama genre as well as the depths and complexities of the Palestinian displacement.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
"What does home mean when you no longer have a house – or a homeland? This beautiful novel traces one Palestinian family's struggle with that question and how it can haunt generations. Hala Alyan's own family history – for years, she felt as if she belonged nowhere – clearly informed her book, but her professional life as a clinical psychologist who has worked with refugee clients plays a part too. Along with another favorite from this year – Mohsin Hamid's Exit West – this is an example of how fiction is often the best filter for the real world around us."
"Read Salt Houses...In Hala Alyan's novel about a Palestinian family in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, children rebel and return and the matriarch's memories fade with age, fraying the brood's ties to their homeland. In the process, the book reveals the inner lives of people too often lumped together in the service of politics."
"Alyan explores the human agency in the face of the harshest realities without compromising the complex nature of the Palestinian diaspora. This is a heart-wrenching, intimate look at the intergenerational impact of losing a homeland."
"Gorgeous and sprawling...In many ways, Salt Houses is about the displacement of millions in war-ravaged lands. But more precisely, it's about the significance of 'home'— what it means to make a home, to lose it, and to go home again when nothing looks or feels the same...Heart-wrenching, lyrical and timely, Salt Houses is a humanizing examination of a family torn apart and remade by conflicts both too complex to grasp fully and too personal to not recognize in ourselves, wherever we might call home."
—Dallas Morning News
"What happens when displacement enters your DNA? This is the questions that Alyan's brilliant debut novel both poses and answers, and—to borrow a heavily used phrase—it feels like one we particularly need to be asking ourselves right now...[Alyan is] an extraordinarily gifted novelist...[Salt Houses is] an epic in every sense of the word...[It] shines in its intimate details; notably, in the ways in which no character is allowed to be a stereotype, and in the way it grapples with those all too human-scaled experiences of alienation and belonging, displacement and rebuilding. Alyan might be grappling with universal problems like war and brutality, but since she renders them through the perspective of one family, through their personal triumphs and struggles, she keeps these issues on a recognizable scale."
—NYLON, Best Fiction Books of 2017
"Each new chapter of Salt Houses shifts perspective and jumps in time...These perspectives touch back on each other through small details, fashioning a collective, familial history. One character’s revelations illuminate the life of another...Alyan’s talent is immediately apparent in her exquisitely detailed scenes and the complex ways her characters relate to one another...Alyan is also a poet, and the last pages of Salt Houses drop like the end of a poem—they crush the reader while also lifting her up...Narratives like this one complicate and humanize America’s simplistic view of Arab cultures, toppling the flimsy idea that Arab people are intractably Other."
“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.”
—The Millions, “Most Anticipated: The Great 2017 Book Preview”
“At the very start of Hala Alyan's novel Salt Houses, a woman buys a coffee set — a dozen cups, a coffee pot, a tray. It's a simple act that unexpectedly becomes painful . . . Alyan builds her story on little moments like that — a peek into the lives of several generations, forced to relocate and resettle. Her characters are lost and looking for a home.”
—NPR, "Morning Edition"
“This sweeping family drama brings history to life by imagining events that befall a Palestinian family from 1963 to 2014. Buffeted by war and political turmoil — the Six-Day War in 1967, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — the family is constantly uprooted, forcing its members to adopt new cultures in Paris, Beirut and Boston. It's a lyrical exploration of identity.”
“Stunning...[Salt Houses] offers such a piercing examination of displacement, identity, faith, and what one character refers to as a lifetime of 'emotional code-switching.'”
“Joyful...full of lovely details about tradition, history, and those quotidian acts between husband and wife, parents and children, grandchildren and children that comprise a life...The opening paragraph of Salt Houses [...] is one of those wonders in which the reader is pulled in by lovely writing that is also serving as the piece of string that, if the reader picks up and begins to tug...
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