The Sonoran Desert, that bleak companion, follows Ahlam, the narrator of Hannah Lilith Assadi’s debut novel, Sonora, no matter how far she flees.
Ahlam was born to parents whose people fight over a different stretch of desert—the Holy Land, Israel, Palestine—whose name has changed as it changed hands throughout history. Ahlam’s Palestinian dad and Israeli mom, both outcasts in the U.S., nevertheless coalesce their pain and pleasure in Arizona, where they build a life among the saguaro and jumping cholla. Ahlam, whose name means “dream” in Arabic, grows up with certain constants: her parents fighting over having the news on or off, a male cat named Sharmut (“whore” in Arabic), the howling of the coyotes, and the spare desert plants.
When Ahlam hits puberty, two things happen: she begins to have dream-like visions (or vision-like dreams), and a girl named Laura, whom Ahlam has been aware of for years, befriends her. From this slow beginning, Ahlam rockets, alongside Laura, into boys, sex, and drugs. First they’re content with their lot in Arizona, especially when a certain young man named Dylan arrives and becomes Laura’s lover. Later, when they graduate high school, the girls move to New York, where they stay with Dylan—who isn’t the all-talk bum we may have assumed, but an actual artist who sells his work and has a modicum of success. His lifestyle bleeds into theirs (or does theirs fit neatly into his?) and the two desert women become somewhat typical lost girls: they drink, they do drugs, they make out with one another to appease men, they do drugs to appease their anxieties and fears, and most of all, they flail and fail.
The novel jumps back and forth between present-day, where Ahlam is waiting for her father to come out of surgery, and her history with him, her mother, and Laura. The history is recent, increasingly so as the novel moves forward and the two timelines grow closer together, but it feels like another life. As Ahlam’s spiritual and superstitious father tells her: “no one leaves a place for a good reason. They leave because they are fleeing from something or because they are being forced to leave. Remember what I am telling you.” Ahlam and Laura’s adventures follow this pattern, which gives the impression that their actions are, in a sense, just a way to fill time before being forced to leave or run away.
Though Ahlam’s relationship with her parents is fraught–they fight often, and her father is especially pissed when she goes to New York—it is her friendship with Laura that is the novel’s most interesting. Ahlam is obsessed with Laura’s presence in a way that is likely familiar to many women: it is a kind of teenage and young adult friendship that teeters between platonic and romantic love, blurring the boundary between them and making it mostly irrelevant. At one point, while living together in New York, Ahlam sketches an extremely intimate portrait of her friend:
Despite how she had grown thinner, her hair parched, her face worn, her eyes were still beautiful, magnanimous, unavoidable. They had grown lighter, their amber more brilliant. The rings beneath them were now grey and deep, but they broadcast such impossible innocence. Sometimes she would appear naked before me, undressing on the way to the shower, and though she had paled from our days in the desert, her body still glowed in contrast to the stark loft. Her small breasts cast perfect shadows on her skin, her funny walk, the way her ass seemed to speak, sashaying with sweet attitude so opposite to her swan neck, so elegant, regal. She was a thing so alive, always. She couldn’t not be looked at.
So what if the girls don’t have sex, or kiss one another only for an audience? They share sexual, euphoric, and despondent moments together, from fucking men in adjacent rooms to snorting coke from the same rolled up bill to suffering through hangovers and heartbreaks alongside one another. Their relationship is codependent, both unhealthy and stirringly beautiful, that it feels far larger than any romantic love affair could be.
Books about female friendship are becoming thankfully less and less rare, as authors like Elena Ferrante and Zadie Smith take up the subject, making it acceptable and relevant. Assadi joins their ranks, even surpassing both authors when it comes to the raw emotion that edges its way through her words.