Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars

Author: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Publisher: Touchstone

“This imaginative but very real look into war-torn Syria is a must.” –Booklist (starred review)

This rich, moving, and lyrical debut novel is to Syria what The Kite Runner was to Afghanistan; the story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker—places today’s headlines in the sweep of history, where the pain of exile and the triumph of courage echo again and again.

In the summer of 2011, just after Nour loses her father to cancer, her mother moves Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. In order to keep her father’s spirit as she adjusts to her new home, Nour tells herself their favorite story—the tale of Rawiya, a twelfth-century girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to apprentice herself to a famous mapmaker.

But the Syria Nour’s parents knew is changing, and it isn’t long before the war reaches their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a stray shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety—along the very route Rawiya and her mapmaker took eight hundred years before in their quest to chart the world. As Nour’s family decides to take the risk, their journey becomes more and more dangerous, until they face a choice that could mean the family will be separated forever.

Following alternating timelines and a pair of unforgettable heroines coming of age in perilous times, The Map of Salt and Stars is the epic story of one girl telling herself the legend of another and learning that, if you listen to your own voice, some things can never be lost.

This beautiful novel holds two stories, one set in modern times and the other in the 1100's, interwoven in a beautiful, lyrical fashion. The two protagonists, Nour, the Syrian-American youngest daughter of immigrants to the US, whose mother makes the seemingly ill-fated choice of returning to Homs, Syria after her husband's death, and Rawiya, a brave girl who disguises herself as a boy, Rami, to work with famous mapmaker al-Idrisi, one of the most famous cartographers and creator of the Tabula Rogeriana (in the 1100's) for King Roger II of Sicily.

Both narratives follow the same journey, drawing the maps of the area as they go, watching, waiting, and seeking. The descriptions of Syria are powerful, captivating, and at times, completely devastating. I could never decide whose story I preferred more. Rawiya and Nour were each fierce, astonishing female characters who stopped at nothing to conquer obstacles and defeats unspeakable odds. Both girls go up against the powerful and distressing cultural norms that we all know encompass Syria – seeing these young women fight back and strive for greatness in a battle torn, destitute Syria was the most amazing feeling and I cannot recommend their stories enough.

The beauty of the writing in this novel and the honest emotions that the characters embody are what kept me hanging on for hours until I finished and even researching many of the places that they encounter on their journeys. Even though this is a fictional account, I cannot help but feel that this is very similar to what many refugees are dealing with and facing even now. The details are enchanting and add a very realness to this story – I know that while most of this novel is supposed to embody the war torn land of Syria and surrounding areas, but Joukhadar’s writing is so beautiful that I just found myself wanting to see all of these magical places for myself. This is a haunting and inspiring story that you will not forget after being done.

We pass the bald ankles of the crooked poplar again. I imagine pressing my fingers into the rough bark, folding my voice into the roots.

“I found more there than I was looking for. I found myself.”

Beyond the peninsula, the wind jumps into the strait. It slips away past stucco and pine forest, tugging the salt from my words.

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