Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars sucked me in with a fascinating structure: parallel stories, both anchored in Syria, one set in modern times and the other in medieval. Unfortunately, this dynamic never quite lived up to its potential.
The present-day portion is narrated by Nour, the youngest daughter of a family who moves back to Syria as civil war is breaking out in 2011. The conflict quickly renders them homeless and forces them to shift from country to country in search of sanctuary. It’s a heartbreaking tale focused not on politics—Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s brutal would-be dictator, is never mentioned—but on the dangers and tragedies that beset refugees, particularly women, when strife sunders a nation.
It's not all dark: Nour and her family are resilient and likable, and they exercise the small agencies circumstances allow. Yet the real counterweight is the interwoven story of Rawiya, a twelfth-century girl who leaves her mother’s home to seek out Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi, the mapmaker commissioned by the Norman King Roger to chart the world. Rawiya pretends to be a young man so she can serve as al-Idrisi’s apprentice. Together they visit exotic lands, escape hostile armies, and battle mythical beasts such as the legendary roc.
This tale is also told by Nour, a saga she learned from her father. Rawiya’s exploits give Nour courage as she travels the same region. But the contrast is stark: Rawiya chose to embark on a grand journey; Nour and her family were forced to flee their home. She recognizes the difference. “I’m not Rawiya,” she admits at one point. “This isn’t an adventure.”
Yet aside from making Nour’s nightmare bearable, Rawiya’s story has no real bearing on her counterpart and vice versa. There are shared themes—strong female protagonists, the importance of family, the wonder of maps—and a few moments when Nour believes she’s found physical artifacts of Rawiya’s experiences, but nothing truly substantive. It’s a necessary disconnect; the girls are separated by time and fact. To establish real interplay, Joukhadar would have had to inject as much fantasy into Nour’s passages as she did Rawiya’s, and that might have undermined the novel’s message. Still, I think it’s the way these characters operate largely independent of each other that made The Map of Salt and Stars a slow read for me.
I enjoyed Joukhadar’s prose, though. Nour has synesthesia, and her version of the condition associates shapes and colors with smells, sounds, and letters. This makes for some beautiful descriptions as she maps her world: “Inside,” Nour says of the family’s house in Syria, “the walls breathe sumac and sigh out the tang of olives. Oil and fat sizzle in a pan, popping up in yellow and black bursts in my ears. The colors of voices and smells tangle in front of me like they’re projected on a screen: the peaks and curves of Huda’s pink-and-purple laugh, the brick-red ping of a kitchen timer, the green bite of baking yeast.”
Language like that kept me going even when the pace lagged. I’m glad I made it through. The Map of Salt and Stars is worth finishing.