Review: SONORA by Hannah Lillith Assadi

by Cassidy McCants

Hannah Lillith Assadi, a recent (2016) Columbia M.F.A. grad, proves herself an entrancing and eerie storyteller with her 2017 debut novel Sonora (Soho Press). In this National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, she traces the growing-up of Ahlam, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and an Israeli woman living in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. After the peculiar death of several of her classmates, Ahlam (who goes by “Ariel” with her friends) escapes to New York with her best friend and partner in debauchery (though this seems too harsh a word for their behavior; I think “experimentation” says it better, for the most part), Laura, with whom she shares an arguably codependent, and certainly consuming, partnership.

The New Yorker has referred to Sonora as “cryptic,” but I can’t say I agree. I find the novel, which is told in chapters labeled by months of the year, to be quiet, dreamlike, sure—maybe even hazy—but not quite oblique. At home Ahlam became accustomed to chronic fever dreams, visions she says began “in the desert and with Laura.” These dreams, often of the dead, poisoned her, making her ill for days; only the sound of her father’s voice would save her, ground her. About dreams, Ahlam/Ariel asserts, in the first chapter, “Every night we meet the faces of those we love in our dreams. Every night we meet ourselves in the faces of others. Dreams must be love’s purest territory. Some dreams dissipate with the morning, some dreams recur. Some dreams appear in broad daylight, some emerge impossibly.”

Somehow, Sonora seems to be a dream that fits into all of these categories: it’s foggy but provides a sort of consistent emotional clarity; it pulls you into a love that feels both fleeting and for life; it tells a story that’s at once familiar, inevitable, and yet faraway, often elusive. The novel reads like a lucid dream—but one that ultimately has power over your consciousness, one that eventually will pull you in so far you’re bound to lose yourself in it.

It’s clear from the beginning that Laura and Ariel bond over their gloom: as Ariel suffers through her dreams, Laura worries she herself is a curse after being told by a psychic she’s a “witch,” like her deceased Native American mother. The two move in with Dylan, an entrepreneurial hotshot, in New York, which leads to a romance for Laura—but Ariel (Dylan prefers Ahlam; it’s “more exotic”) remains a constant in their love life. She almost never strays from Laura’s side; she’s there for parties, drugs, even sex, though Ariel herself abstains from sexual contact for years following a violent incident back home. Laura sings and Ariel dances—Laura seemingly the more captivating of the two, at least in Dylan’s eyes, and definitely in Ariel’s. They’re a package deal.

In keeping to the dreamscape, Assadi weaves in and out of past and present; throughout the novel an adult Ahlam reflects on this intense friendship while visiting her father, a taxi driver who calls his car his Battlestar Galactica, in the hospital. Ahlam’s love for her father is evident in these scenes, as is her pull away from home as she recounts her life with Laura.

The Ahlam-and-Laura story often is gloomy, but Assadi manages to summon hope from within Ahlam throughout: reflecting on her high school years, those early years with Laura, she concludes, “With the years, we become even more ourselves and call this change.” Maybe this sentiment is not in and of itself hopeful, but it reads to me as a sort of confirmation of life, a realization of one’s trajectory, one’s place in the world. Both Ahlam and Laura, from the beginning, feel alienated, unable to find the space they should occupy. Sonora follows their search, not for fitting in, but for belonging. Assadi perfectly captures this preoccupation with being an outsider with a story about Laura revealing a strange scar on her chest, ostensibly from being hit by lightning (“ . . . what if it’s some sort of curse? Or, like, a map to a constellation where there are aliens,” Laura asks upon showing Ahlam the mark):

“I have always loved those with beautiful scars. My father was born with a mark beneath his calf he claims is the exact shape of his homeland. I wonder if the doctors ever notice, if they wonder at a body, its marks of particularity, its pinpricks of love, of drunken stumble, of bruise. Or if in their haste to save our lives, it is only our blood pressure, our liver function, our heart rate that concern them. If an alien beheld the earth and saw us scrambling for the rush-hour train, pumping gas at the local station, slowed in the highway traffic, our bombs fireworking the sky, they might think we are the scars. We are the wounds. This is why aliens always appear in the desert. It is empty. It is clean.”

This story, like many, is one of stumbling into adulthood, of the search for the meaning of home, of love and infatuation and loss. Assadi’s descriptions of the desert are poetic but not necessarily romantic—Ahlam sees her home for its beauty and its failings, just as Assadi as author recognizes both the strengths and the weaknesses, the good and the bad, of her characters. This novel is unique in its portrayal of a Jewish-Palestinian family (Assadi herself comes from a Jewish mother and Palestinian father), and it’s universal in its depiction of the quest for identity, for love, for belonging.

Cassidy McCants, an associate editor of Nimrod, received her M.F.A. in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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