Even a review quote from the Mail on Sunday couldn’t put me off this one (although the idea of the Mail positively reviewing a book whose main characters are Syrian refugees is still making my head spin). I loved the sound of it from the start and was thrilled to receive a copy to review from Orion, thank you!
“The Map of Salt and Stars is the moving and magical story of Nour, a young Syrian girl who must journey as a refugee in search of a new home – a journey that will mirror that of Rawiya, a fabled map-maker’s apprentice, many centuries before. This is a novel about hope, the power of imagination, and what it takes to find your way home.”
We first meet Nour in her New York home, grieving after losing her father to cancer and remembering the stories he used to tell her, in particular the story of apprentice Rawiya and map-maker al-Idrisi and their adventures attempting to map more of the world than ever achieved before.
We soon see Nour moving back to Syria with her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, and her map-making mother, where they have comfort and support in the form of family friend Abu Sayeed; for her family, this is a return to home, but for Nour, who was born in America, it is an entirely alien country and language. This struggle for identity sets the scene brilliantly for Nour’s personal journey towards adulthood, something which I think is portrayed so well throughout the book in her thoughts, feelings, reactions and encounters.
Not long after returning to Homs, bombing and threats of war see Nour and her family once more on the move: this time as refugees after they are left homeless. And it is here that we start to see Nour and Raiya’s stories really start to intertwine.
As Nour’s journey unfolds, we are told the story of Rawiya’s journey alongside it. I loved the contrast between the two stories – the bleak and unflinching realism of Nour’s life as a refugee and the folklore-heavy tales of Rawiya’s adventures, as well as the many parallels between them – the strong heroines forced to disguise themselves as boys, the long and arduous journeys with many unknown dangers to be faced, the locations they travel through, and of course the central themes of the book: belonging, home, family, identity and courage.
I’d read mixed reviews elsewhere, with many saying they couldn’t see the parallels and found the two narratives disjointed or jarring; personally, I found entirely the opposite. I loved the way the stories mirrored each other, whilst also being very different in tone and style. Alongside the broad parallels between the stories, there were so many moments when smaller, symbolic references between the two popped up which I thought worked so well (in particular the stars and stones) and I thought the way the stories came closer and closer together towards their endings was very effective. It worked brilliantly for me.
The author notes at the end of the book show just how much research went into writing this, and it shows. The modern-day story of Nour is harrowing, tense and devastating by turn and feels incredibly raw and real; the historical tale of Rawiya feels firmly rooted in tales and characters passed down through the generations: it reads like a story that should be told in the oral tradition (which is of course how we are introduced to it, as a tale told to Nour by her father), and the characters and events are, as with Nour’s story, to greater or lesser degrees based on real people and events.
Then there is the writing itself: lyrical, poetic, clever and captivating. As with the history and people, the landscapes and places are clearly well-known or researched, and more importantly well-loved (the shape poems at the start of each chapter are simply stunning). The use of colour is magical and again, very effective. Nour has synaesthesia, but unlike other books I’ve read recently where characters have this condition, it is not ‘a thing’; it is normal for her and reads as such, but also adds tremendously to the rich descriptions which take us with her on her journey (not to mention the story in a clever, but again under-stated way that I won’t spoil). I found myself wishing for a map, or more specifically, the talent and time to create one as I read: the visuals that accompanied this story in my mind were wonderful.
This was a book I expected to devour, race through, inhale. Instead, it took a long time for me to finish: I savoured it, became immersed, journeyed slowly. I read much of it in short bursts, rather than long spells, pausing often to let each part of the story sink in and spending time digesting it, mulling it over, thinking back to it.
It’s also a book that deserves to have incredibly broad appeal. While it is an adult fiction book, there are elements of younger fiction within it, notably the young main characters, the fantasy elements and the themes of growing up and finding out who you are, all familiar to so many younger books. Yes, there are some truly upsetting events (including a sexual attack, although not one described graphically) and it is unflinching in describing the devastation of war and the refugee crisis. However, I think many young adult readers would also enjoy this – it is by no means exclusively an adult book. The viewpoint of the protagonists makes it very accessible to a younger audience too.
A simply beautiful book that I’m already looking forward to re-reading (despite having a proof copy, I have ordered the hardback as a copy for The Bookshelf). Full of compassion, wonder and hope, I can’t recommend this enough.