Map of Salt and Stars
by Joukhadar, Jennifer Zeynab

This rich, moving, and lyrical debut novel is to Syria what The Kite Runner was to Afghanistan; the story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker—places today’s headlines in the sweep of history, where the pain of exile and the triumph of courage echo again and again.

It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.

More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

A deep immersion into the richly varied cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, The Map of Salt and Stars follows the journeys of Nour and Rawiya as they travel along identical paths across the region eight hundred years apart, braving the unknown beside their companions as they are pulled by the promise of reaching home at last.

The story of a contemporary girl's flight into exile from the Syrian civil war is deepened by the parallel tale of a 12th-century girl whose journey of discovery covers the same geography in Syrian-American writer Joukhadar's ambitious debut. The poem in the shape of Syria that opens this novel—"O / beloved, you are / dying of a broken heart"—sets the tone of deep-rooted melancholy for the story that follows. Twelve-year-old Nour was born and raised in Manhattan by immigrant parents, her mother a cartographer and her father a bridge designer. Shortly after her father's death from cancer in 2011, her mother moves Nour and her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, to Homs, Syria, where they have relatives to help out. But soon bombs are dropping in Homs. As the family takes flight, Nour comforts herself with a fairy tale-like story her father used to tell, and Joukhadar weaves it into the narrative. "Everybody knows the story of Rawiya," she writes. "They just don't kn ow they know it." The heroine, 16-year-old Rawiya, left her home in Ceuta—a Spanish city in North Africa where Nour's parents once lived—to avoid starvation. Disguised as a boy, she apprenticed herself to al-Idrisi—an actual 12th-century mapmaker—as he traveled around charting trade routes. The route of Rawiya's story corresponds with Nour's as she finds and loses refuge in Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Passing as a boy for safety's sake, as Rawiya did, Nour endures cold, hunger, and red tape. Though she lives at the epicenter of world crises, what affects her day to day are more personal crises experienced in bus terminals, small groceries, and dusty streets. More dramatically, her sister Huda is injured by a bomb and sexually attacked by a gang of boys; a family friend drowns when a ferry to Egypt catches fire. While Rawiya had a romantic adventure, Nour experiences the terrors of being a refugee. Yet both are fatherless girls growing into youn g womanhood, and they share a similar search for the meaning of home, both physical and spiritual. Joukhadar plunges the Western reader full force into the refugee world with sensual imagery that is immediate, intense, and at times overwhelming. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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