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A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar

December 10, 2013

A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar.   Penguin Books (2009), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 304 pages.


A novel both funny and moving by a Middle Eastern woman about a girl growing up in an eccentric family in Kuwait who became refugees when their country was attacked and who eventually come to Texas.

The narrator of A Map of Home is Nidali, a young woman struggling to come of age at the same time she is uprooted from her home by war and forced to become a refugee in a foreign country.

Nidali’s father was from Palestine and he is an architect who wanted to be a poet.  Her mother is from the Greek community in Alexandria, Egypt, and she gave up a career as a concert pianist when she married.  Although both are loving, the two fight fiercely and frequently, as Nidali describes with her dry humor.  She herself is often torn by her own “half and half” legacy even while growing up in Kuwait.  When she was thirteen, Kuwait was attacked by Iraq.  Nidali’s world was turned upside down.  Most of the book follows her through these years as she struggles to free herself from her parent’s claustrophobic rules and their unrealistic expectations at the same time she seeks to find stability in an ever-changing world.

As a young child, Nidali’s father had made her draw and memorize the boundaries of Palestine.  He called it “a map of home.” Later he told her that his country’s boundaries had changed from year to year.  She erased the lines and focused on the blank paper. Maps become a symbol in the book, and Nidali never again has a clear sense of home.  In some ways school, which had always been a refuge from her chaotic home, becomes the only constant force in her life.

Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and later came to the United States, but I don’t know how much of the book was truly autobiographical.  The details of what was being seen and felt are so telling and so revealing that I suspect that Jarrar knows well the situations she describes.  I had to keep reminding myself that her book was actually fiction.  She is a wonderful storyteller with the ability to draw readers into the lives of those whose lives have been different from her characters.

I strongly recommend A Map of Home to many readers.  Those who want to experience what life has been like in the Middle East in recent decades and those who are interested in what it means to lose one’s home and country will be especially attracted to this book.  And it is simply a delightful novel.

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