Published by Touchstone
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Cultural, Debut, Fiction
Making maps is the fulcrum for Jennifer Joukhadar’s debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars. Rawiya and Nour are young women who tell their stories side by side even though they are separated by almost a thousand years. Rawiya is a sixteen-year-old in ancient Ceuta who longs to see the world beyond her village so she leaves home in the guise of a young man and becomes an assistant to Muhammad al-Idrisi, the greatest known mapmaker of the times. Nour is only twelve but in 2010, but after her father’s death she, her mother, and her two sisters move back to Homs, Syria, where they all lived before Nour was born. Her mother is a maker of unusual and distinctive maps and hopes being closer to family will help them all with their grief. The novel follows both girls on their journeys, one mythical and filled with grand adventure and the other, the all-too real hellscape of war and displacement.
Shortly after Nour and her family return, the protests in Homs accelerate and in less than a year their home is shelled. They are left injured and with nothing but their passports, some cash, and the few small possessions they can carry. Their only hope is to get to an American embassy, but in a region of the world consumed by conflict this is easier said than done. Their path eventually takes them through Jordan, Libya, and Algeria—a trip echoing the expedition Rawiya finds herself on as she works with al-Idrisi to map parts of the world never before charted. She encounters fantastical creatures, engages in fierce battles, and sees lands beyond her greatest imaginings. In the present, Nour is no less challenged, but she is fighting a real battle for survival.
The logistics of war, as horrifying and relevant as they are, are secondary to the lives of Nour and everyone she encounters along the way and this is what gives the novel its depth and complexity. At one point she is faced with going on ahead without her mother, a choice that feels impossible
…in my head I am counting up the broken families I have seen. I am counting the missing fathers and the buried brothers, giving form and breath to those who were left behind, asking myself how many times you can lose everything before you open yourself to nothing.
She is 12-years-old. It is these kind of events, as they occur repeatedly throughout A Map of Salt and Stars, that are a stark reminder of the chasm between the comfortable lives most of us live here in America and the unfathomable loss and fear that are a constant companion to the people of Syria. These are not terrorists, they are humans whose government has destroyed every vestige of a normal life, leaving them no alternative but to flee. It’s easy to forget with the rhetoric of hate we live with now.
This may be one reason why Joukhadar alternates Rawiya’s story with Nour’s—to temper the intensity of a surreal reality with a tale that is fantastical. Initially, it felt like a distraction—Rawiya is a bedtime story Nour’s father told her, her favorite because it’s about a girl, maps and adventure. The embellished language of a fairy tale makes for slower reading and I wasn’t certain how much of it I would follow, but Joukhadar entwines the girls’ experiences in a way that largely complements both. Even though they are hundreds of years apart and one is real and one made up, the map of Rawiya and Nour’s inner transformations is my favorite one in The Map of Salt and Stars.