The coming of age novel is a traditional and logical starting point for any aspiring novelist. In this time of many books and fewer readers, the challenge is to create a unique voice which can be heard above the din. In Randa Jarrar's debut, A Map of Home, we find a voice which rises above the din to give us a modern and insightful look at how more young people come of age. Jarrar's own international upbringing lends support to her creation of Nidali, born in Boston to a Palestinian father and Egyptian/Greek mother, raised in Kuwait, chased by the Iraqi invasion into Egypt and eventually landing in Texas all on her way to turning 16. While hardly the resume of most teenagers, Nidali's unusual journey reflects the growing international background of the United States. Children are no longer simply immigrants from one country, but instead a biological and geographical mix of many places.
Nidali is an honest narrator, and the reader feels at times drawn and at times embarrassed by the decisions and actions of this young girl. Her father (her Baba) hits her on a regular basis, but Nidali sees this as normal for her culture and Jarrar withholds judgment. This is Jarrar's strongest trait as a writer — her ability to trust her story and her narrator without creating explanations. A coming of age story in which we learn too many "lessons" will cease to be a coming of age story, instead resembling a how-to book for parents and their adolescents. Here we see things as Nidali sees them, and her view is wider than that of her family, in part, because she is the sum of different parts. She is forced to examine herself in the context of different nationalities and cultures in order to understand herself and her family.
Much of her young life is spent in Kuwait where she excels at school, explores her sexuality, and deals with the drama of family life. Baba is a frustrated poet who works as an architect, and mother is a frustrated concert pianist who finally obtains a piano and spends her days playing Chopin and ignoring her "wifely" duties. A thinly sketched younger brother hovers in the background, but Jarrar never really fleshes him out, so he tends to simply serve as a foil to others. When Iraq invades Kuwait, they eventually flee to their summer home in Egypt. Along the way one car burns up; Nidali's first period arrives; and Baba bribes guards with whiskey or selections from his collection of silk ties.