Two quite different and extraordinary books. The first a mixture of historical fact, myth and magic coupled with a searing currently relevant story of a family escaping from Syria. How might that work?
The contemporary heroine is a synaesthete (another – See Red Sparrow) and the book in partly set in Homs (See – Sea Prayer). Which considering this book was selected at random is slightly odd.
In The Map of Salt and Stars, the two stories are sectioned together in pairs. So in the historical-myth-magic section we follow the adventures of Rawiya, a young girl who leaves home to become apprentice (as a boy) to the twelfth century scholar and mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi engaged by Roger II of Palermo to make a map of the known world and in the contemporary section we follow the story of Nour.
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has skillfully woven the historical strand with parts of the stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and also the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These myths or fairytales are combined in a wonderfully starry tapestry following the actual known progress of al-Idrisi and his companions around the lands bordering the Mediterranean.
Rawiya’s partner in the contemporary world is Nour. She has grown up in New York, but on the death of her father, her mother and two older sisters return to Homs, and a quasi-uncle Abu Sayeed. The situation changes in Syria and the family are forced to flee, with devastating consequences. Nour, bolstered by her father’s wonderful story telling (as described above) treads courageously through the journey, in her head following in the footsteps of Rawiya.
The salt of the title are the tears that are shed along the way; but in all circumstances good people look to the stars hopefully, for stories and for comfort. No one who looks at the stars can be truly bad. This is what Nour/Rawiya firmly believes and it is borne out in her adventures.
But this is not all sweetness and light. There are passages in both sections that are unbearably tragic, and losses in one section are inevitably mirrored in the other, in much the same way as the exhibitions of tremendous courage and survival.
Varina is a book of a very different complexion. Charles Frazier has returned to Cold Mountain country; this time following the flight of Varina Davis away from the Federal troops and bounty hunters with a gaggle of children, not all of them her own. Accompanied by two faithful coloured retainers.
Varina is the wife of Jefferson Davis, upon whose head there is a bounty, and a suspicion that they are complicit in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and therefore guilty of murder and treason.
They are far away to the south before this small party hears about this; Jefferson has still not joined them and better it were by far that he had not.
This is historical fiction of the highest quality. A beautifully constructed story built upon the few details know about Varina and about her husband. Reconstructed over a period of weeks when one of the children, now grown up seeks her out to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of himself, when he can only remember fragments of that terrible time.
So the sections switch from Saratoga Springs in 1906 to Varina’s youth in 1842, and the events of the American Civil War between about 1865 to 1879-93 as remembered by the two of them.
My knowledge of American history lags far behind that which it should, in spite of Gone with the Wind and other books. But Frazier brings it into focus in all its horror, messiness, mud and stink; the tragedy and betrayal of the African Americans; the brutality of the war itself and the unforgiving nature of the winners. It is all here and it is all pretty horrifying.
Read and learn.