~by Randa Jarrar
2009 Arab American Book Award
A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar has the honor of being the first book to be offered to me for review directly by the publisher. (Thanks, Penguin!) The book is Jarrar's debut novel and has already garnered quite a bit of praise, several awards, and has been translated into four other languages so far. The work is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story that is sure to appeal to many. I was particularly drawn to A Map of Home because of my personal interest in the Middle East (where much of the story takes place) and because the author graduated from the University of Michigan with her Master of Fine Arts and lives in Ann Arbor. When I had first seen the book as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, I hadn't realized that she was a local author.
Nidali Ammar was born in the United States to an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father. Soon after, they move to Kuwait where her brother is conceived. But the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq during the First Gulf War forces the entire family to flee to Egypt and then eventually to America. Ultimately this means Nidali faces a few more challenges growing up than the average teenager. A Map of Home is told in three parts, each section focusing on Nidali's life in one of the countries, what she like there, what she dislikes, what she misses, and what she wants. Of course, what she wants for herself can differ drastically from what her parents, and particularly her father, want for her. Each time they emigrate she must not only redefine herself and start over, she also has to redefine what home and family really means to her.
Nidali makes a fantastic if unreliable narrator. She's got quite a bit of sass and sarcasm in her, appropriately so given her age, and her frankness about her sexuality is rather refreshing. In some ways she reminds me of Anamika in Abha Dawesar's Babyji; both girls are precocious, intelligent, and a little rebellious and strong-willed while working out their place in the world. There are other similarities that exist between the books despite some significant differences (namely, Anamika's lesbianism and the cultural and geographical characteristics of India). A Map of Home is also vaguely reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.
I really quite enjoyed A Map of Home and am very glad I had the opportunity to read it--Jarrar is a marvelous storyteller. For the most part, her writing flows beautifully but occasionally there's a bit of a hiccup where it feels like something is missing or a reference was lost. The final third of the book is a bit more disjointed than the rest of the book due to some of the techniques used. (Also, at least one of the chapters was previously published as a short story.) This was a little distracting at first but overall wasn't detrimental to the enjoyment of the book. I like Nidali a lot and Jarrar captures her voice perfectly. I couldn't help but cheer her on as she grew up, discovering and rediscovering who she was and what she wanted out of life, a process only made more difficult by her family's situation. Jarrar is adept at at mixing humor and heartbreak, tears and triumph, and A Map of Home did not disappoint.