Review: The Map of Salt and Stars

I carried our memories all this way, the story of what happened to us. It was heavy on my shoulder this whole time, but I didn’t fall down.

…..

The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s debut novel, is a stinging lungful of air and a gut punch that took my breath away.

Joukhadar’s novel tells the story of a family on their journey from their home Syria to safety in another country, through the eyes of Nour, the youngest daughter.

Twelve-year-old Nour recently lost her father and moved from New York to Syria with her mother and two older sisters. Her mother is convinced that the restless conflict rumbling through their Homs neighborhood will blow through quickly, but after their neighborhood is bombed and their home turned to rubble, they become refugees.

Nour’s family flees westwards through ever more war and danger, straining for the promise of security…somewhere.

Woven into the narrative of their journey is the story of another young women’s quest–the ancient adventures of Rawiya, as told to Nour by her father before he died.

Both girls’ travels are directed and bound by maps, and on the way, they discover that the most important places cannot be found on any map…that the maps to our hearts are made of the stories we tell of ourselves. Our memories, the places we come from, are charted in words and painted with our own voices.

Many readers have compared The Map of Salts and Stars to Kite Runner. Unfortunately, I cannot add my opinion, because I have yet to read Kite Runner.

[Gasp]. I know, I know. Shame on me. It’s on my list for 2019 now, because if it’s anything like The Map of Salt and Stars, then it’s amazing.

Joukhadar tells Nour’s and Rawiya’s stories honestly and elegantly, not daring to shy away from the horrific and the brutal, but painting between gashes of bloody violence with colors of hope, family, and spirit.

The story weighed on me and nearly brought me to tears multiple times, as Nour witnesses rape, drowning, bombing, beatings, and pain in nearly every other form. The reality of these sufferings–the knowledge that this story reflects the experience of so many Syrians–wrenched my heart.

Joukhadar made tangible and close a story that before, had only been a series of news headlines to me. The plight of Syrian refugees had been only one more tragedy in the midst of a daily onslaught of tragedies. Now it is as close to me as my neighbors, and the people I go to church with, and my two beautiful babies, safe and whole in their beds.

I love the rich symbolism and imagery in The Map of Salts and Stars, and the way that maps and words and stories swirl together to bring unity and hope to the narrative. Joukhadar’s prose feels like poetry, and each section of the book actually opens with a poem for each country that Nour and Rawiya traverse, and I just want to drink the words down like strong peppermint tea.

“Every place you go becomes a part of you,” Joukhadar writes. She’s right, of course, and every story told is a place we can travel. The Map of Salts and Stars is a place full of pain, but it is a pain washed in beauty and a pain that can open our eyes to need and open our hearts to pour into that need. It is a place that will certainly become one of the better parts of us.

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