Reading The Map of Salt and Stars was a transfixing experience. It drops you into the displacing and confusing world of a Syrian refugee running from the civil war, trying to find a home amongst the nonstop turmoil. Then you’re suddenly transported back eight hundred years to see a young girl risk a lot to follow her dreams of becoming a map maker and seeing the world. The two girls journey along the same route with eight hundred years separating their footsteps and an unrelenting persistence through trials and grief constantly merging their paths together. Joukhadar truly spins a tale of hope and life amidst, what is at its very core, a tragic situation.
The novel begins with giving the reader a peek into the life of Nour, a 12 year old girl whose family has just lost their father due to cancer. Nour and her sisters are uprooted from their life in New York to move closer to their mother’s family in Syria. Though obviously upset by the sudden changes, Nour and her family are trying their best to adjust to their new life in their quiet Homs neighborhood. Amongst it all, Nour makes sure to keep her father’s spirit alive by whispering the Tale of Rawiya to the exposed roots of the trees. Nour’s father was a very talented storyteller and told her that the tree roots connect under the ground and create an endless vine of connection no matter where you are or how far apart you may be.
Nour’s mother was a cartographer by trade and entrusted her daughters with a special map with hints to a safe place once the bombs started to drop and she was separated from them. Following the map across seven countries in search of refuge, we see Rawiya’s tale sneak in bit by bit. Rawiya was a 16 year old girl from a Ceuta, a Spanish city in North Africa where Nour’s Parents once lived. After the death of her father, she leaves her mother and disguises herself as a boy in order to apprentice herself to al-Idrisi – a 12th century mapmaker. She travelled with him as he set out to map the known trade routes and possibly discover new routes.
I think my favorite parts of the novel were witnessing the two stories dance and spin together so intensely – this novel is nothing else if it isn’t intense and raw. Joukhadar weaves the story of Rawiya so seamlessly into Nour’s story that I often lost track of where one ends and the other begins. Both tales paralleled each other so wondrously, bringing forth this truth – the past and present can’t exist without each other. I would recommend this novel to anyone who wants to see historical trials and present issues mend themselves all under the spellbinding prose of Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar.