By Hannah Lillith Assadi
Soho Press Inc., 2018
This debut novel was an honoree in the National Book Foundation’s 4 under 35, and a finalist in the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham prize for debut fiction.
My interest was piqued because the first half of the novel is set in Phoenix, my adopted home, and because the book is about friendship between girls. Would this author be a local Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels traced the closeness of lifetime female friendship and rivalry?
Assadi is lyrical in describing the desert in winter rain, when the creosote sends an intoxicating smoky smell into the air. Much of the book reads like memoir, overlaid with mysticism. In 1995, the Desert Mountain High School, which Assadi herself attended, was built, encroaching on native land. The book’s narrator is called Ahlam, and, just like the author, her father is Palestinian and her mother Israeli. So, in this novel, a sense of dislocation pervades. “The high school, Assadi writes, “was erected on Yavapai land. This was normal. The entire city was erected on someone else’s land. My father told me to be vigilant.”
Ahlam is not vigilant. She falls into teenage friendship with Laura, at first the stronger character. Laura transgresses at every turn, and drags Ahlam with her. The two meet an older man, Dylan, an artist, while freshmen in high school, and he remains in touch with Laura from New York, inviting them to visit. After leaving school, the eighteen-year-olds move to the Big Apple to pursue artistic careers and live with Dylan.
For the inexperienced girls, New York is a vortex of drugs and sordid parties. Laura slips further into dependency, while Ahlam seems unable to help her, to leave, or to confront Dylan, Laura’s enabler. The book weaves back and forth between Ahlam’s despairing life in the big city and her
parents, lonely, sick and depressed, back in Phoenix. The lack of a moral compass for these girls is apparent, and, as if to explain this, Ahlam several times refers to her parent’s warring backgrounds, their constant fighting, and the way they pray differently. The hard edges of everything inflict wounds on Ahlam. Rarely have I read a novel where the narrator seems so ill at ease in the world.
And yet, Hannah Lillith Assadi is a writer of great intelligence, insight, and with the ability to describe our changing world deftly. Here, for example is how she describes Phoenix: “The desert, once dark, is slurred with new lights, traffic on the freeway, sirens in the distance.” The word ‘slurred” is exactly how the rushing traffic looks on the 101 at night. Given its usual meaning, which refers to the sound of drunken speech, this word takes on significance, as Laura, and to a lesser extent Ahlam, trash their health and beauty in the pursuit of sophistication and “civilization.” The book is an elegy for an innocence that never really was.