I had forgotten all about this review I wrote of Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s beautiful novel The Map of Salt and Stars for The Sunday Times. It’s without doubt, my favourite book published this year.
This spectacularly rich and dreamlike novel follows the parallel journeys of two young Islamic women searching for their place in the world – one story is set in the past, the other in the present.
After her father’s death, American-born Nour finds solace in the stories he used to tell her about Rawiya, a Syrian girl who travelled the world in the service of a legendary map-maker. When their mother decides to move Nour and her sisters from Manhattan to Homs, Nour encounters a country that is as alien to her as she is to it, with the only familiarity she can find in the comforting names of places and stars in Rawiya’s romantic tale.
Soon Nour finds herself on her own journey through the middle east and north Africa as her family flees the violence that has engulfed Syria. Nour’s story is fraught with danger, putting the reader at the centre of the refugee crisis.
The conflict is deftly described by its effect on ordinary people – the destruction of homes and neighbourhoods, traumatised children, hospitals too full to admit the injured, the death of loved ones. Respite is offered by the interwoven tale of adventure taking place during the twelve century – a time when the world was just being discovered and borders were yet to be created.
But as beautiful as it is, Rawiya’s story is a cutting reminder of how closed off the world has become and serves to amplify the violence and desperation of Nour’s flight to safety. Like Rawiya, Nour has to pretend to be a boy to avoid danger, because as her mother warns, ‘Where there is no order, people will take advantage.’
The Map of Salt and Stars is a heart-breaking, beautiful story that comes at a time when the world needs to hear it most.
This review was first published in The Sunday Times in September.