Skip to main content

The Map of Salt and Stars

Review

The Map of Salt and Stars

Nour is a child of two cultures. For 12 years she has lived in Manhattan, enjoying Central Park with her father, speaking English and having only a passing acquaintance with Arabic, the language of her family’s native land. Her experiences with Syria are from a distance: letters from her grandmother, emails from relatives, her mother’s tasty cooking, photographs of her father with her uncle, Abu Sayeed --- and, of course, her mother’s maps.

Nour’s mother is a mapmaker. She paints beautiful representations of countries and cities, anchored with compass roses and fantastical creatures in the margins. Sometimes she uses oil paints and other times acrylics (which dry much faster) to tell the stories of nations. But it’s Nour’s father, Baba --- the designer of bridges, the real storyteller of the family --- who tells her the stories of Syria. Every night, Baba tells Nour a story, whether it’s about the fig tree in the backyard of his childhood home in Syria, or about Rawiya, the girl who disguised herself as a boy so she could learn mapmaking from the master, al-Idrisi, hundreds of years ago. That story took them a couple of months to get through --- night after night filled with spoken adventure, courage, monsters and kings, and Rawiya, the girl who became both a scholar and a warrior.

"Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s lyrical debut novel introduces readers to 12-year-old Nour and the dangers and grief that Syrian refugees (especially the females) face today."

Nour also has a special gift. She has synesthesia, which causes her to see colors when she hears a sound (oil sizzling in a pan is bumblebee-black-and-yellow, her sister Huda’s laugh is purple and pink, the sound of the breeze is white) or sees a letter of the alphabet. But Nour also experiences loss. Her beloved Baba developed cancer and lost his voice; he then lost his life. Her mother’s salty tears covered everything in their apartment. And now Nour, her mother and her two sisters are headed to Homs, Syria, where Abu Sayeed believes there are people who would buy Mama’s painted maps.

Huda and Nour’s middle sister, Zahra, are concerned that the protests in Syria might turn dangerous. Mama thinks that the danger is so far away from Homs that they’ll all be fine, that they’ll find a new place of life and peace for their family. But that hope comes to a terrible standstill the night they have Abu Sayeed over for dinner. The thundering echoes Nour has heard for several days resound in her ears again, when she is leaning down telling the courtyard’s fig tree Baba’s story of Rawiya. As they prepare to eat Mama’s celebration dinner, a bomb explodes in their neighborhood, and the ceiling crashes down around the family.

Rawiya left her widowed mother, dressed as a boy, and apprenticed herself to a man who was traveling around all the countries of the Mediterranean for the Norman-Sicilian King Roger, recording and creating a geography of the world. She traveled from the tip of Africa that faces Spain across the sea to Sicily and to Greece. She traversed the Syrian province, Jerusalem and Libya, Egypt, and across northern Africa. And although Nour doesn’t know it, her family is preparing to trace the footsteps of Rawiya as they flee the bombings of Syria and become refugees seeking another country of their own, a place that will become their home. But before them are dangers they cannot imagine --- not the dangers of the sea and sand monsters, or rogue warriors, that Rawiya must fight, but the monsters of predators, thirst, barbed wire and bullets. And perhaps even separation and death.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s lyrical debut novel introduces readers to 12-year-old Nour and the dangers and grief that Syrian refugees (especially the females) face today. Nour --- equipped with the courage she doesn’t yet know she has, her color sense, and her mother’s special map --- searches for a safe place for her family to land, as Rawiya traces the same geographical journey 800 years before. Perhaps the salt and stars will lead both girls back home.

Reviewed by Melanie Reynolds on May 11, 2018

The Map of Salt and Stars
by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • ISBN-10: 1501169033
  • ISBN-13: 9781501169038