Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi
Published March 28, 2017
Purely due to the order in which my holds came in at the local library, April turned out to be a literary fiction month for me. Reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Hannah Lillith Assadi’s Sonora back-to-back, I didn’t feel strongly enough about either book to quite paraphrase Dickens with ‘It was the best of literary fiction, it was the worst of literary fiction’, but there was a marked contrast in the reading experience for me. Both novels are, to some extent, about identity and coming of age, and each features a mixed-race protagonist who dances and her somewhat wilder and bolder best friend, but while I enjoyed Swing Time and thought it offered a lot of interesting insights and commentary, I thought Sonora fell flat.
Ahlam is the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and his Israeli wife. Growing up in the desert suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, she is an isolated outsider until she meets Laura, her magnetic counterpart with a lightning forged scar across her abdomen. Together they explore drugs, sex, and boys and journey to New York City with vague aspirations of pursuing careers in the arts. But in NYC, they succumb to a party-fueled lifestyle of highs and lows that threatens to destroy them both.
Sonora reads very much like an extended fever dream, intense but confusing and hallucinogenic. In the short term the effect is interesting, offering an opportunity for the author to play with imagery and language freely, but over the course of the novel it becomes tiring as there is seemingly very little plot to anchor the work. Reading the discussion questions linked to in the back of the book, I realized that I had missed a lot of the content of the novel due to the fragmented dreamlike writing. Although it’s a slim volume of under 200 pages, Sonora seemed to drag on and I returned to it only reluctantly on my commutes, rather than reading voraciously after work.
Admittedly, literary fiction is not my genre. I can count on one hand the number of lit fic books I tend to read a year, so I am not the target audience for this novel. When I enjoy literary fiction works, it tends to be for the well-crafted prose, character-driven narratives, and a deep exploration of themes that leaves me thinking about a book for days afterwards. Here Sonora only partially succeeds.
Assadi’s strength is certainly her prose, which is at times lush and poetic. In particular, her descriptions of two contrasting settings, the stark Sonoran desert of Arizona:
“The saguaros were everywhere scattered like crucifixes against the sky, endless and ancient, and in the half-light cast human shadows on the dust. Their arms were cast forth, cheerfully upright, blossoming come April, until dying or struck by lightning and stripped to skeletons.”
and the ever-changing bustle of New York City:
“The subway was my solace. I memorized the variance in the sound of the trains. The A’s low rumble as if it has inherited the knowledge that its journey ended at the ocean. The difference between the new F and the old F even before it pulled into the station. The torturous turns of the the 2 made as it pulled in and out of Park Place. The tender whirr of the G.”
struck me as vivid, the type of writing that engages all of the senses. I also found a few of the stories Ahlam’s father Yusef tells her to be striking, especially one about the curse of the Bedouins in the desert who dig for water and sometimes find oil instead and believe God has cursed them. He says,
“They would wail and scream and plead not to find it ever again. Every time they saw black instead of blue. Well, suddenly the west needed that black liquid. And some of those Bedouins became rich from the very thing they used to believe was a curse. But oil is still a curse. Would there be war at all if it was not for oil? How many millions have died for that black liquid curse?”
The prose can be lovely, but it is also a distraction from anything of substance and I felt like I was missing things because the language and imagery was so ornate. For me, a novel needs more than interesting prose to be gripping, and this is where Sonora lost me. Although it is a coming-of-age story, I never connected to Ahlam, the protagonist. She is something of a lost soul, following her childhood friend Laura, initially to parties in their hometown but then all the way to New York City and into drug addiction. Ahlam’s fascination with Laura, a self-destructive, impulsive presence who repeatedly makes poor decisions, never fully connected for me, and the other characters are similarly portrayed without a great deal of depth. I found the process of reading Sonora laboured and when I finished the novel it didn’t leave me thoughtful or moved by the journey.
Personally, Sonora was just not my cup of tea. I think I would have appreciated it if the characters had been better fleshed out, if more of the book had touched on Ahlam’s home life and the relationship with and between her parents (which I found more interesting than her connection to Laura), and if the plot had been more coherent and read less like an extended fever dream. It may be better suited to regular readers of literary fiction who are looking for something fragmented, stylized, and hallucinogenic in scope.