Ambitious, powerful first novel

Jessie Neilson reviews The Map of Salt and Stars, by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, published by Hachette. 

When Baba died, young Nour and her mother lost words, sunk in grief. Arabic became the sole language of mourning, but one to which Nour was hardly privy, growing up as she had with Mama and her sisters Zahra and Huda as immigrants in Manhattan.

The now-fatherless family departs for a hot and rainless August in Homs, to be near their cultural roots at such a time. Yet Zahra accuses American-born Nour of not being a real Syrian, since she cannot speak much of the language.

Another father figure steps into the picture: Abu Sayeed, who Nour had only seen in her father's Polaroids from the 1970s. He is a gentle and protective man, but also bereft, from losing his own family.

While settling in Homs might be the plan, it is 2011; war and terror is imminent and there is an urgent need to move on. Bombs fragment the family members' remaining peace of mind, and shake and crumble the besieged city around them. Their father settles in as the ghost they do not discuss.

Nour (like the author) has the special sense of synaesthesia, which for her means sensations are provoked by sounds. Abu Sayeed's voice to her rings out honey-coloured and visible, trust-worthy. Huda has a nice laugh which is ``pink purple, and flicked up at the end''.

Nour's father had been a teller of bedtime stories, his way of making sense of everything.

An ancient Arabian fable of map-making he told parallels Nour and her family's travels as they flee Syria, trying to reach safe ground.

Nour's mother is also a map-maker and she designs for the young women a coded map to help them to safety. Yet by the time they get to Damascus, all Nour can sense is that city has burst like a blister, and the booming is thunder in her bones.

Author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is a young Syrian American and this is her debut novel. Like her protagonist she had a Muslim father and a Syrian-Christian mother, and experienced difficulties in assimilation and inclusion, and of having to (re)learn Arabic as an adult.

The Map of Salt and Stars is ambitious and powerful, with epic flights through lands near and far. It is about the will to survive in the most challenging situations, and the beauty and importance of stories and fable in making sense of life and in giving it meaning, and through this, healing.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant


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