Contemporary Literature

The Map of Salt and Stars

Joining in for my third @words.between.worlds monthly book (this being their December choice). After three amazing reads (Speak No Evil and Fruit of the Drunken Tree being the last two), it’s pretty safe for me to say that, even if I can’t join on the correct month, I’ll be adding all their choices to my TBR. Each has been intense and profound and gorgeously written and this one is no different.

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

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“…and I am starving for my name, starving to feed my children the things they’ve forgotten, starving to find the words to say that home was a green place once and will be again.”

Born in NYC, Nour moves back “home” to Syria with her mother and two older sisters after her father’s death. Still reeling from and trying to deal with the grief from that loss, the family is thrown into even further trauma after their home is completely destroyed by a stray shell. The family decides to leave in search of safety and stability, traveling through seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa along the way, and facing untold numbers of hardships and further suffering. Woven into this modern-day tale illuminating the Syrian refugee crisis is another tale: Nour’s favorite story that her father used to tell, of Rawiya, the 12th century girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to apprentice with a famous mapmaker. Nour and Rwiya’s travels parallel each other, both in terms of location and in loss/growth, as they search for their better futures, their happy endings.

This is such a heart-wrenchingly beautiful story. I want to say that I loved it. I want to tell you that it was gorgeous and inspiring and tangible in the best way. But at the same time, I feel like I cannot truly say all that because looking at the subject matter…it’s too real for that. It’s impossible to say that I was entertained and impressed by this book when, at the same time, I know that it’s telling a story that is not at all a story, but rather day-to-day life, for so many. The combination is emotionally crushing. As it needs to be, as it is. There is not a single bit of restraint shown by Joukhadar. She holds nothing back, she doesn’t coddle the reader. She hits us with all the loss, all the suffering, all the hopes. And it’s perfection.

Let me list out a few other things that I particularly liked. (I know I don’t usually review this way, but for some reason it felt right here.)

  • The way Nour and Rawiya’s stories mirror each other’s creates a wonderful structure for the overall story. They are similar enough to be clear counterparts across time, yet at the same time are not so identical that knowing one necessarily gives away what will happen in the other. Also, the fantastical elements of Rawiya’s story are a nice lighter touch sprinkled throughout the more difficult sections that make up Nour’s story. And the connection and insight that Nour’s knowledge of this story gives her into her father’s memory and her mother’s plans is also a brighter spot in the overall novel.
  • I loved the use of synesthesia as a stylistic device and, as we find out towards the end, a plot device as well. I have always been fascinated by color and its connection to other senses and I love reading about it in books. (The Astonishing Color of After does this super well too.) Plus, it was super cool to learn that the author actually has synesthesia herself!
  • Nour’s voice is quite well done for her age. Sometimes things go over her head that you think she should understand, while other times she seems overly intuitive for a child. But I think, under the trying circumstances, that’s a very realistic bounce back and forth, as she tries to comes to terms with what she has seen and what she is experiencing. The way children cope with trauma is incredibly different than adults. So I respect the way the author portrayed that here.
  • Overall the writing is just breathtaking. I haven’t highlighted this many passages from a book in a while. And I sighed out loud so many times at a perfect turn of phrase or a stunning description.
  • The sub-context of this novel, the love letter to the maps of our lives, to celebrating who you are and where you’ve been, even when it’s painful to remember, is stirring. These histories shape and make you – you cannot (and should not) forget them – but at the same time you do not have to let them win. You can simultaneously embrace them and become more than them. Each of our hearts and persons are a map of what we have lived. And despite sharing many circumstances with others, we still process everything in our own ways, so that for each of us, our maps can parallel but still look very different from, anyone else’s. That person to person unique-ness is so special and was portrayed gorgeously in this novel.
  • I loved that each new section started with a poem in the shape of the country Nour and Rawiya visit in that part of the book. It’s both literarily (the poems are just as emotionally affecting as the rest of the book, if not more so) and visually impactful. So creative.

Just like Nour collects stones, so this story slowly adds weight to your heart. Each new tragedy, whether big or small, adds to the burden. It’s incredibly heavy, literally and figuratively. A metaphor at its finest and subtlest. The loss in this book, of people, home, self, identity, dignity, precious memories and possessions – it’s almost too much. Yet at the same time, it’s not gratuitous or sensationalized. And, again, to know that it’s not just a story for many people is unimaginable. The focus Joukhadar brings to this current-day crisis is important and sharp. Yet, with her ending, she still manages to show that there are ways out, that lives can be saved, that hearts still hold onto hope for a better future and that there’s no reason why it cannot be out there. The significance of that message cannot be ignored. This books is stunning. You should read it.


As I mentioned, the writing was simply gorgeous, and I found myself stopping SO often to mark favorite quotes and passages. Enjoy a few (a lot) here and then go read the book for yourself:

“How many Polaroids are there of places that no longer exist?” (This was just a really striking image/question for me.)

“People always think dying is going to hurt. But it does not. It’s living that hurts us.”

“It was a noble thing, she thought, to seek beauty in a calloused world.”

“‘If you don’t know the tale of where you come from,’ he said, ‘the words of others can overwhelm and drown out your own. So, you see, you must keep careful track of the borders of your stories, where your voice ends and another’s begins.’ […] ‘Then stories map the soul,’ Rawiya said, ‘in the guise of words.’”

“Does it make it easier to live with loss if you don’t name it? Or is that something you do as a mercy for other people?”

“I wonder if almost can cost you as much as did, if the real wound is the moment you understand that you can do nothing.”

“…in my head I am counting up the broken families I have seen. I am counting the missing fathers and the buried mothers, giving form and breath to those who were left behind, asking myself how many times you can lose everything before you open yourself to nothing.”

“‘We always go back,’ I say. ‘We go back to death-places. It’s like somebody dying opens a door, and we have to look in.’”

“We aren’t on any map.”

“‘I am a woman and a warrior. […] If you think I can’t be both, you’ve been lied to.”

“No one can take our land or our names from our hearts.”

“‘But what is the lesson?’ Rawiya asked. ‘What is there to learn from all this – this brokenness, this chaos? We saw the wounded, magnificent world, its mountains, its rivers, its deserts. Is there any making sense of it?’ […] ‘Must there be a lesson?’ al-Idrisi said. ‘Perhaps the story simply goes on and on. Time rises and falls like an ever-breathing lung. The road comes and goes and suffering with it. But the generations of men, some kind and some cruel, go on and on beneath the stars.’”

“‘I wonder if all maps are stories. […] Or all stories are maps.”

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