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“Nostalgia is an Affliction”: A Review of Salt Houses
By Erynn Porter
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan cannot have been published at better time. When the world is split up into black and white, good verses bad, right and wrong, Alyan opens up colorful shades of in between. Alyan’s characters are Muslim and she shows beautiful people who are individuals. She discusses their faith and shows how each character expresses that or chooses not to. Salam was religious, Alia and Mustafa fluctuate with it. Riham becomes deeply devout to the annoyance of her siblings. Souad rebels from it in every way she can, and Budur never talks about it.
Though there is no magic in this novel, Alyan’s descriptions make a regular world feel magical. The women wear bright colors, they garden, they have colorful personalities. The landscapes are vivid and vibrant. Through her descriptions the world takes on a heighten state. Flowers seem to have powers, colors are bolder, signs are everywhere. Right from the gate, it opens with Salma, the matriarch, staring into the bottom of a teacup, waiting to predict the future. She is surround by women in who have shed their headscarves since there is only women in the room.
“Lines curve wildly, clusters streaking the sides. Two arches, a wedding and a journey. The hilt of a knife crossed, ominously, with another. Arguments coming. On one side of the teacup, the white porcelain peeks through the dregs, forming a rectangular structure with a roof, drooping, an edifice mid-crumble. Houses that will be lost. And in the center, a smudged crown on its head, a zebra from, stripes across the flank. Salma wills her face expressionless, through fear rises in her, hot and barbed. A zebra is an exterior life, an unsettled life.” 9
The teacup describes a main plot point, Salt Houses follows a family through generations of upheaval, war, and change. Their family tree spiders out across the book, Alyan created a giant family without losing any characters in the mix, and to top it off, all of them are interesting in their own way. The first generation is Salma and Hassam and their children are Alia, Widad, and Mustafa. Alia has children of her own, Riham, Budur, and Souad. Then each child has children of their own, Abdullah, Linah, Manar, and Zain. Alyan creates a perfect mixture of family normality while having several different wars in the background. Teenage rebellion, marriage, sibling squabbles play in the forefront while mentions of Saddam Hussein are in the background. A common thread between each generation is how they constantly look back. Something is missing and every generation looks for what it was that went away.
On page 74 Alia thinks “Nostalgia is an affliction.” The Yacoub family doesn’t look back, they can’t. Objects take on more meaning, they become endowed with memories of generations past. Alia thinks of all the objects she lost because of the war. She thinks of all the small things she used to have, how tough it was to start over. Her brother, Mustafa, ends up dying in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the rest of the family is uprooted. They are forced to lose their home, just like their parents before them who also lost all their special objects. When they settle in their new home in Kuwait City, they stop talking about past. They don’t speak his name so that Mustafa becomes a missing piece that follows them like a ghost. They don’t look back, to look back is too feel pain. To look back is to see the destruction of war, death, and to see and feel how much they have lost.
But to not look back is to lose something in itself. Memory is a precious privilege. Salma is the one who started the do not look back habit and then at the end of her life, she tells Alia to remember. She tells her this in a fit of panic, says that she is wrong and you must remember. It is a haunting scene in only a couple paragraphs. In a few words everything Alia thought was good was wrong. Towards the end of Alia’s life she starts to lose her memories, thinks she in the time when Saddam Hussein has risen to power, that he is coming to get her. She forgets names, time travels to certain moments, and her children watch it all.
Alyan is a master of generations, each character is their own. Their point of views are different, each generation is more modern than the next. But the magic isn’t lost. The colors are still vivid and the scenery is bright. You are absorbed into their world and you hold their memories.