Can sadness be too heavy for God? Maybe God can bear it all, but I don’t know if I can. The world is a stone in me, heavy with Baba’s voice and the old clock tower and the man selling tea in the street. I want to believe things are supposed to be better, but I don’t have the words to say how.”
The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar is an own-voices Syrian-American fiction story about a girl named Nour and her family after they move back to Syria in the wake of her father’s passing. As they struggle to build a new life together in midst of unbearable grief, their town is bombed, significantly changing the course of their life as they know it.
There were so many elements to The Map of Salt and Stars that made it a phenomenally beautiful reading experience, such as the lyrical prose, the duality of stories being told, the nuances of past and present grief, and the heart-breaking nature of a refugee’s fight for survival.
The main character is a little girl named Nour. She has a condition called synaesthesia, which is neurological condition where multiple senses that are not typically connected become joined together. For example, it allows for people to hear colours or to be able to see sounds. Because of that, the prose is stunningly eloquent with lush descriptives that utilises numerous shades of bright colours to express feelings of sadness, grief, longing, guilt, joy and more. Nour sees the pain and suffering around her as people are dying or starving in shades of reds, yellows, and blues, for example. Because her entire existence is so heavily focused on the reliance of colours, the way she communicates her thoughts and fears to her mother seem almost constantly metaphorical. Eventually, their colour communication shall help them with an impossible situation that arises during their journey.
Now, there are two stories that take place side-by-side in The Map of Salt and Stars. The first is Nour’s story, during the present time, as her and her family become Syrian refugees. The second one is a fictional tale that her father used to share with her, and it occurs 800 years earlier, following a girl that disguises herself as a boy so she can become an apprentice to a renowned mapmaker. They travel the lands and fill in the blank places on the map. What makes both of these narratives so fascinating is how much of an echo they are of one another. Rawiya, the girl from the fictional story, goes on a long journey that allows for her to truly understand what family means to her, as well as what culture and history can mean for a person’s identity. Through Rawiya the reader also gets to experience Syria back when it was thriving and filled with tons of splendour, highlighting huge aspects of West Asian culture.
With Nour’s voyage, the reader gets to watch as Nour comes to understand how precious her family is to her. The memories of her father become her most cherished treasure, thoughts of her Syrian home and how it lay in pieces show her of a home she lost before she was able to grasp what it meant to her, and how the complex sibling rivalries she held with her sisters are meaningless and a waste of life when that same life can end in a single moment. Nour’s journey is one that is brimming with sorrow and terror and uncertainty as her family travels across lands where the ground is blanketed with brass casings, broken rocks, and ill-intentions.
“He said, ‘People don’t get lost on the outside. They get lost on the inside. Why are there no maps of that?’ ”
The only time that these two separate stories felt disjointed to me was when we shifted from one to the other. Because there is such a vast reliance on what sometimes amount to purple prose aesthetics with Nour’s point-of-view, it sometimes made it challenging for me to focus on sections with Rawiya, which felt rather simplistic and lacklustre in comparison. My brain could not adapt quickly or comfortably from a straightforward and artless tone to the more sophisticated and impeccably ornate descriptives of Nour’s world.
Beyond that, The Map of Salt and Stars is an exceptionally heart-wrenching story to read. One of the biggest themes of the book is how quickly life can change. Nour and her family are uprooted as their home is destroyed. They gather everything that they can carry with them, find a few loved ones, and take off on foot in search of a place they can call home where death and dust do not plague them like shadows. This is the brutal reality of what it means to be a refugee, and a traumatising experience that many all around the world have undergone or are still experiencing to this day. The devastating experiences and overwhelming sense of hopelessness that threatens to dismantle Nour and her family is never sugar-coated or diminished, which I appreciated immensely because in spite of everything going on, they never lost that bit of hope, and this is such a profound message, particularly in tales that centre on a loss of identity to various extents.
The Map of Salt and Stars is one of the most consummate books that I have read in years, especially as it pertains to the refugee experience. It is magnificently compelling and emotionally riveting. The story is not an easy one to digest as it portrays the harsh reality of loss in multiple layers and dynamics, with the loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of individuality, and even loss of faith, but that is also what makes it one of the most important books that you shall read.
This review first appeared on my retired sibling blog, The Djinn Reader.
Publication Date: May 2018
Genre: Syrian-American Literature, Fiction
Page Count: 360
Content Warnings: Violence. Oppression. Death of loved ones. War-torn scenery. City bombings. Attempted rape scene.
GoodReads: The Map of Salt & Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar