Book Review: “The Map of Salt and Stars” by Zeyn Joukhadar

This book was incredibly hard to read.

I don’t mean literally, but emotionally. Half of the book deals with a Syrian fable that Nour’s baba told her when she was younger, but the other half deals with Nour’s family escaping Syria after the bombing of their house and becoming refugees to flee to Ceuta, with boats capsizing, smugglers, and bullets standing in their way. I will embarrassingly admit that I know very little about the Syrian crisis, and that is research and reading that I will have to do on my own time.

I was also wrong in my First Impression Friday post: it’s not one chapter in the past, one chapter in the present: each chapter starts with 3-7 pages of the fable and then transitions into Nour’s story. While I sort of wish we’d gotten more of Rawiya, because her story was so much fun to read. It did have a bit of a Mulan moment in it, though (although luckily with a better outcome).

Rawiya’s story follows a young girl in the 1200s who disguises herself as a young boy in order to join a famous mapmaker on his mapmaking journeys, and her journey parallels Nour’s journey in a way. We watch Rawiya travel from Ceuta to the far reaches of Africa and back, while Nour is trying to get from Syria to Ceuta (even though she may not know it yet). Along the way, Rawiya encounters a Roc, a terrifying giant white bird with a bone to pick with any who dare defy it. Rawiya, of course, defeats it with her slings, but it gets away in the end and vows to get its revenge. Rawiya’s story spans seven years, and wraps up nice and neatly with a bow in the end, like the diary entries in The Thirty Names of Night.

Nour’s journey starts in New York City, where her Baba (father) has just died, and her mother decides to move Nour and her three sisters back to Syria where her family is, and then their house gets bombed. They have to flee to Jordan, then Libya, then Assyria, and the mother will not tell her girls where their final destination is. Nour figures it out after being separated from everyone but her oldest sister, and they brave untold dangers to try and get to their safe place while hoping against all odds that their mother and sister will make it there as well.

It’s unclear how long Nour and Zahra are on their own, because to me it seems like maybe two weeks at the most, but when they are [SPOILER ALERT] reunited with their family at the end, it seems that they’ve been on their own for months and months. If I have any issues with the book, it’s with this part, as I would have liked to have known time. It could be that because our narrator is only twelve years old, we don’t get a good sense of time, but I would have liked a more concrete answer.

Another thing that would have been immensely helpful would have been to add a map in the beginning of the book so I could have tracked Rawiya and Nour’s journeys.

Just like The Thirty Names of Night, both stories wrap up neatly with a bow in the end. After such a book of heartbreak, I was expecting an ending that wasn’t satisfactory, and in a way I got it. In the words of Doctor Who, “Just this once, everybody lives!” (well, aside from one), and we get answers for everything. While I would not wish extra suffering on anyone, especially a twelve-year-old girl, I don’t know how many refugee families received the happy ending that Nour and her family have in this book.

The prose in this, just as in Zeyn’s other book, is absolutely gorgeous. I read several reviews on GoodReads that claimed that the dual storylines were “too confusing” to understand and they rated the book very low, and I don’t understand. The storylines are so far apart (and yet parallel), but I also took a class with non-English majors once where the students couldn’t focus on a book (The Martian) that contained more than one point of view, so there’s that.

If you are looking for a beautifully written book that will stick with you long after you finish the last page, please check out The Map of Salt & Stars. I borrowed mine as an ebook from the library, but I am absolutely going to be buying a hard copy of this book as soon as I can. It’s something I want on my shelf and will read again, but probably not for a long time because I’m still reeling from the emotions this one put me through.

Have you read A Map of Salt & Stars? Where should I start on my journey into the Syrian refugee crisis? Let me know in the comments.

And as always, keep reading.

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