A Map of Home begins with the aftermath of Nidali's birth. Her
father names her
Nidal, thinking she's a boy, adding the "i" only after realizing his mistake.
So begins a
journey filled with expectation, chaos, love, music and strife. The novel
form the backbone for an independent film with its hyperbolic characters,
zingers, rapid pacing, and everything from war to multiculturalism to a
sexual explorations. The territory covered in this debut is handled with
grace by Jarrar,
whose eye for imagery is equal to that of a cinematographer's: the pianos
saved by Mama
decorating the Texas yard, the announcement for Baba's poetry reading, Wonder
stickers adorning a headboard, a car burning in the desert, and even ordinary
with the potential to become running gags, like the making of
burgers with cheese or Nidali's trips to the bidet, all carefully placed as
markers for the
characters' many transitions.
A few moments strain believability. When Nidali's love interest reappears on a bicycle after she's already given up, or when she encounters him again on the beach, the moments feel scripted, but if it's a small criticism to say the book stumbles with a few film clichés, it's also a compliment to say you wish you could see these pages in technicolor. It's a testament to the writer's skill that one becomes invested in the characters.
Readers familiar with films like Bend it Like Beckham or My Big Fat Greek Wedding will recognize the awkwardness of navigating more than one culture, how ethnicity is sometimes played for humor, and how the negotiation between parental desires and those of the protagonist lead to the eternal tug between tradition and independence, memory and assimilation. Such films often struggle by remaining on the level of mini-crises with heartfelt or resigned but altogether expected resolutions. A Map of Home, similarly, ends the way you think it would. There's little tension about Nidali's fate, but plenty about the path she takes towards that conclusion.
The book is a little darker than the aforementioned movies. Nidali's relationship with her parents is complicated by an abusiveness stemming from frustration for her perceived failures. Every curse or slap emphasizes that if growing up is tough, it's likely twice as hard when your best allies sometimes appear to act against you, until you understand their reasons. One of the strongest features in this book is that willingness to allow for generational differences without reducing the characters to simple archetypes. By the time Mama urges Nidali to never forget them, the moment has been earned.
The third section is particularly interesting, shifting briefly to the second-person point of view and back to the first person. This section also offers a view at a world that native speakers of English tend to accept without questioning. A "tag sale" is not, in fact, a sale of tags. Jarrar combines such insights with Nidali's mounting determination to leave home.
Coming-of-age themes are common, but the intelligent narration provides more than enough interest to sustain the momentum. Rare is the book that makes one stay up to finish it; this is one of them, simultaneously circling in its family dramas and spiraling outwards in its connections to history and place. Adult and teen readers alike would enjoy Nidali's honest portrayal. She's the Muslim equivalent of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, tender, caustic and wise in all the right moments.
Randa Jarrar was born in Chicago in 1978, and grew up in Kuwait and
Egypt. She is a writer and translator whose award-winning fiction has appeared
in Ploughshares as well as in numerous anthologies. Her translations from the
Arabic have appeared in Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of
Writers; recently, she has translated Hassan Daouds novel, The Year of the
Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine. She currently lives in Ann Arbor,
Michigan. A Map of Home is her first novel.
Interesting Link: "You are a 14-Year-Old Arab Chick Who Just Moved to Texas" by Randa Jarrar.
This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the August 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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