In this beautifully nuanced debut novel from Syrian American author, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, two parallel journeys alternate with and counter each other, highlighting the connections between the vital importance of the stories we tell and the psycho-geography of maps.
In the present day Nour is 12 and lives with her Syrian family in Manhattan. When her father dies, her mother, a mapmaker, decides to take Nour and her older sisters, Huda and Zahra, back home to Syria. For Nour in particular this is a huge upheaval – not only has she lost her father and misses the stories he used to tell, but she’s starting a new life in a country she’s never seen, and can only speak a few words of Arabic. She’s struggling with the newness of everything when their home in Homs is bombed and her sister Huda is seriously injured. Suddenly everything has changed: the family is forced to leave the ruins of their home and become refugees in the devastating Syrian conflict. They travel together, picking up new friends and losing others, facing dangers at every turn. When Huda’s wound becomes infected, Nour and her argumentative sister, Zahra, are forced to rely on their mother’s map to get them to Ceuta, a Spanish city in North Africa where they hope to find their father’s brother.
Intertwined with this story is the tale of Rawiya. Living the narrow, restricted life of a girl in the 12th century, she is desperate for adventure, so leaves her home in Fez (in present day Morocco), disguises herself as a boy and becomes apprentice to Al-Idrisi. She travels with him to explore and map North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean for the Norman king of Sicily. In these chapters the author uses the traditional language of the story-teller and brings out the strangeness of the journey by incorporating magical elements based on stories from the Arabian Nights; they are haunted by the terrifying roc, a giant, carnivorous bird laying waste to towns and cities.
Both stories are strikingly told tales of long, dangerous journeys in which the main character is a young girl who take risks; and in both the writer challenges the stereotype of ‘men of action’: several of the male characters demonstrate a positive, emotionally-literate and nurturing side. But, on the whole we are more strongly drawn to Nour’s story: the present day is the most convincing – a vivid portrait of an ordinary family forced into extreme situations. It could be any of us. Especially as Nour is an American child, already out of her own environment, flung into an even more unpredictable and dangerous existence just to survive.
The Map of Salt & Stars is a good novel in any case. That it’s a debut makes it even more impressive. Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar demonstrates that she already has a huge range of skills at her disposal as well as great maturity and compassion. I look forward to her next novel.
by Ali Thurm