Salt Houses and Creating a Magical Object
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan is a novel that follows multiple generations of a Palestinian family. It opens during a wedding, in the perspective of Salma, who is the bride's mother. Against her own mother's advice to never do a reading for family, Salma is about to read her daughter's fortune in coffee grounds.
The first sentence of the book is a warning and an evasion:
When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie.
We know nothing yet about this family or world, but there's immediate danger.
In the next moment, we might expect the narrator to describe what she sees in the cup and interpret it for us. We want to understand the danger and what Salma will lie about.
But she stalls. She has to stall for her audience of wedding guests so she can figure out what to say instead of the truth. But she makes the reader feel that time too, diverting our attention from the meaning of the grounds to the cup that holds them.
Alia has left a smudge of coral lipstick on the rim. The cup is ivory, intricate spirals and whorls painted on the exterior in blue, a thin crack snaking down one side. The cup belongs to a newer set, bought here in Nablus when Salma and her husband, Hussam, arrived nearly fifteen years ago. It was the first thing she’d bought, walking through the marketplace in an unfamiliar city.
In a stall draped with camelhair coats and rugs, Salma spotted the coffee set, twelve cups stacked next to an ibrik with a slender spout. They rested upon a silver tray. It was the tray that gave Salma pause, the triangular pattern so similar to the one her own mother gave her when she first wed. But it was gone, the old tray and coffee set, along with so many of their belongings, the dresses and walnut furniture and Hussam’s books. All left behind in that villa, painted the color of peach flesh, that had been their home. Salma cried out when she saw the tray, pointed it out to the vendor. He refused to sell it without the coffee set and so she’d taken it all, walking home with the large, newspaper-swathed bundle. It was her first satisfaction in Nablus.
When Salma turns our attention away from the fortune, it creates incredible suspense. It also creates space for crucial background on the story. And it turns the cup into a magical object that can contain the suspense and the family's history.
I'm talking about story magic here—not the literal kind. I say the cup is magical because it is made to hold so much of the family's history. And putting intangibles like loss and memory and a character's feelings about them into a physical object makes them much more holdable for the both Salma and the reader.
Let's look at what the cup holds.
The cup obviously represents Salma's life in Nablus because it is the first thing she bought there. Then we can attribute much else about the cup as also being about that time. It is fifteen years old and yet the narrator calls it new because the time is still new to her and she doesn't want to accept her life in Nablus as her real one. It viscerally establishes her loss and her longing for the life before she had to flee.
It's important that she was not originally drawn to the cup but to the tray. The tray represents her old life; the cup is the life she was forced to take. And a few lines later, we learn that the tray has been meticulously cared for and "hasn’t lost its gleam. The cups, however, are well worn."
It's also significant that the cup's description draws in Salma's mother. This is a multigenerational tale, and the mention of a lost wedding gift that her mother gave to her, as Salma's own daughter is getting married, makes us understand both the importance of family and how their connections are traumatically severed.
We also learn something essential about the family in Salma's ability to buy the entire set, even though she only wants one thing. This family has money, and that matters to the story. It matters that Salma recognizes the luck of their money and how their hardships are excruciating but also buffered at times by wealth.
Thus through the history of the cup, we get not only the history of the family but also Salma's feelings about their history.
The physical description of it is quite telling and lovely. The whorls are beautifully described. But the cup also has a crack. The crack ought to be ugly, but it's described in the same sentence and made to match the whorls.
Not only that, I'm reminded of the cup's description again, in just a few pages, when we get a scene of the bride being painted with henna.
One of the aunts punctured the dough sacks with a needle, her hand steady as she maneuvered the paste into a design of whirls and flowers and lattices on the tops of Alia’s hands and feet.
This is lovely and similar to the cup. When I read the passage about the henna, I'm reminded not just of the cup's beautiful whorls but of the crack "snaking down" the side. Or course, I'm also reminded of the frightening prediction, which Salma withholds. And the sudden violence in the puncturing of the dough sack is somehow like the crack in the cup, too.
This is a lot of symbolism for one object to hold. And I think it might seem heavy handed if not done so skillfully. The description is lovely and folded into vivid memories, which help to compel the reader as the story work is put into place.
It's also a great strategy that the description of the cup and the memories associated with it are tucked into a suspenseful moment, in which we have learned that a prediction will be bad but before we know the details of it. Even as the narrator is meandering through memory and creating this metaphor, suspense builds about that fortune.
In the paragraph that follows my quoted passage, Salma uses the phrase, "over the years she has presented the tray," to spiral further into memory and we learn more details of the family's past. But because the memories are tied firmly to the cup she is reading, we don't forget about the present moment or our desire to learn of the danger she sees in the cup.
When we finally get back to the reading of grounds, it's as if we've been snapped there and no time has passed because of the force of this suspense. And yet, the cup Salma reads has been imbued with rich layers of meaning. It's a conduit to the family’s past, even as it is a utensil to predict the family's future. Salma looks at the grounds and reads them, and her reading has gained depth and resonance because the cup in her hands has been made to contain so much.