Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Map of Salt & Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Reading Group Read
357 pages


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.

It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a 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 as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.

More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.


“The winter before Baba went in the earth, he never missed a bedtime story. Baba made my favourite one, the story of the mapmaker’s apprentice, last two whole months. Mama listened at the door, getting Baba a glass of water when he got hoarse. When he lost his voice, I told the ending. Then the story was ours…”

This is a very hard book for me to review.

For the most part, I adored this book. It’s gloriously written with the words providing such evocative details that it is almost possible to see the scenes, smell the aromas, and feel the sensations. This vividness is only enhanced by the fact that young Nour has synesthetes which means that she perceives the spoken word in color. It is impossible to read her tale and not become fully aware of the horrors of war and the desperate situation refugees find themselves in. In fact, this book would have been an almost endless list of the horrors those who are unlucky enough to find themselves in parts of the world torn apart by war and conflict find themselves in, if it hadn’t been for the story about Rawiya, which, while fictional, runs parallel with Nour’s tale.

Rawiya and her ‘straight from a thousand and one nights’ adventure are a perfect addition to this story. Rawiya’s voyage and adventures show many parallels with the journey Nour and her family are forced to undertake. But because it’s a fairytale, Rawiya’s obstacles and dangerous encounters are all overcome through a mixture of bravery and good old fashioned good luck.

The addition of Rawiya’s tale is also a clever device in that the story gives eleven year young Nour a frame of reference the real world can’t provide. Nour has to learn about the harsh realities of life under the most dire of circumstances. It’s a crash course in growing up for her while she learns that the world is sometimes anything but friendly, welcoming, or save.

Having said all that, I did have one major issue with this story and that is that too me, Nour never read as an 11 year young girl. The words she uses and the thoughts she has sounded much older than she is supposed to be.

“I wonder if almost can cost you as much as did, if the real wound is the moment you understand that you can do nothing.”

This quote of Nour’s thoughts after she and her older sister are attacked by men, sounds like something a grown up might think, not the musings of a child, no matter how fast she has to grow up.

So, I’m a bit torn. The story touched me deeply. I loved the clever parallels between the fictional story and Nour’s reality. I loved the metaphor provided by the maps, which detail so much more than 'just' the places we live in and travel through. And I was impressed at how the author managed to make this story both a vivid and stark reflection of the reality refugees face and a convincing coming of age story. I’m just not convinced Nour’s voice was appropriate for a character her age and, unfortunately, that fact did pull me out of the story once or twice. No matter how beautiful, at times poetic even, the dialogue and thoughts were, I never really believed they were Nour’s. Which is why I’m giving this memorable, thought-provoking, and gorgeously written story ‘only’ four stars.

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