- Publish Date
- Thursday, 12 July 2018, 3:46PM
The Map of Salt and Stars, a story about resilient girls, is a novel for our time, tracking the flight of a child who travels to her ancestral homeland of Syria from New York and then becomes a refugee. The tale of Nour, set in the present day, is mirrored by the centuries-old fable of Rawiya, an impoverished girl who joined an expedition commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to map the Mediterranean, then called the Bahr ar-Rum, or – in a case of contested nomenclature that crops up more than once in the novel – the Roman Sea, or the Sea of Byzantium. Soon, the mission led by the famed cartographer Al Idrisi expands, and they will set out to map the whole world.
Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, the New York City-raised daughter of a Christian mother and Muslim father, is the natural architect of a story about cultural malleability and transference. She injects the narrative with pathos from the get: even in her own family, Nour doesn’t quite fit. She has come to Homs with her mother and two older sisters, who speak the language, know the sounds and smells and are entirely at home in the steamy streets, but it is Nour’s first time out of “Amreeka” and she must learn to gauge whether the mortar booms she hears are approaching or receding. Life in Homs, where the avenues are filled with music, is a bizarre juxtaposition of danger and domesticity. There is no man to protect the family; Nour’s father’s death is the reason they returned.
Nour and Rawiya are separated by time but linked by their dauntless spirits and by geography. Rawiya’s home village of Ceuta, a city on the northern coast of Africa that belongs to Spain, was home to Nour’s parents after they met at the University of Cordoba, where Nour’s mother studied map-making and her father engineering. It will be a beacon for the newly stateless family.
The journey to asylum is a Syrian story without a twist – Nour and her mother are at home on an ordinary day when their street is levelled by bombs – but Joukhadar lends dignity and beauty, the kind of everyday urban charm Westerners take for granted, to a country lately known only for its troubles. (The subtext might be: Beirut and Belgrade were once cities of strife and suffering, and now they’re tourism hotspots. It all comes around.)
Maps are the through-line, a guide and a curse. You might be able to point to your country, but that doesn’t make it safe for you, a lesson Nour’s mother imparts to her youngest child when she gives Nour a map with no names on it: “It’s dangerous to tell the world where you’re going all the time.” Later, after travelling through Jordan and Egypt and arriving in Libya, among other displaced, nationless people, Nour is asked by a small boy to write the story of her life. As she thinks about it, she spies a message scrawled by a previous resident of their temporary home: “We aren’t on any map.”
The Map of Salt and Stars is a beautiful, subtle novel whose artful structure ensures a perfect landing. It heralds Joukhadar as a remarkable storyteller who uses the discipline of fiction to its full effect, depicting a people and a culture in a way not seen in news reports.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.
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