Hannah Lillith Assadi’s debut novel Sonora is the story of Ahlam, a girl raised in Arizona by her Palestinian father and Jewish mother — like Assadi herself. The story is rife with surreal imagery, madness, and magic, and it’s hard not to wonder why Assadi has written a novel instead of a volume of poetry or a memoir. Her lyricism and wash of sensory descriptions far outshine the action in Sonora, causing the book to sit uncomfortably in its form.
Ahlam builds a friendship with a girl named Laura, also a product of mixed parentage, whose dead mother was indigenous and whose father is white. The two young women share a history of ancestors who were violently displaced from their homelands, and try to find home in one another.
As teenagers, they meet an older man named Dylan, an artist living in New York City and they head east to start living with him as soon as they’ve graduated from high school. All the earth magic and alien mystery of the desert is wiped away and replaced by the bright lights of NYC. The city fills them with the liberation of anonymity and hard drugs.
There are countless books about girls spinning out of control as they teeter toward adulthood, and it’s questionable whether Sonora is a necessary addition to that canon. The trope of feverish female friendship, which pits girls in competition and would have them destroy each other, is complicated. Assadi is critical enough, creating characters outside of rigid stereotypes. They are tender and protective, self-involved and reckless. But Ahlam and Laura remain unconvincing in both their vulnerability and their agency. Despite detailed descriptions of what they do, Assadi offers little insight into what they think or how they feel (besides Ahlam’s visions). It’s almost as if Ahlam, the only narrator, is in a constant state of dissociation, viewing everything from slightly outside herself. In some ways, this is emblematic of a person who has experienced trauma. But when Assadi spends so much time on wildly creative hallucinations and little time on the character’s emotions, the entire point of the novel is obscured.
The nature of contemporary, inherited pain and Ahlam’s emotional drift are linked to the wandering of her parents’ ancestors. But by the time this happens, three-quarters of the way through Sonora, it’s unclear whether Assadi did it intentionally. Growing up working-class in an American desert suburb made Ahlam’s life far richer than her father’s refugee childhood. Her second-generation-immigrant problems seem trivial compared to her ancestors’ histories of being hunted. But those problems are no less real, and in some ways she is no more safe. Her parents see some freedom and opportunity in their American life. But Ahlam knows that femaleness — being “another disposable girl,” as she says — is as annihilating as the past her parents fled.