Sono­ra: A Novel

  • Review
By – April 28, 2017

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. 

Read Han­nah Lilith Assadi’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

Long­ing for New York

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone is a dance artist, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, cura­tor, writer and edi­tor liv­ing in NYC. Read her dance crit­i­cism atThe Dance Enthu­si­ast and peep her cura­tion @thebunkerpresents.

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