Lily In The Desert

Reviewed by Mimi Albert

For the past few decades, many authors of literary fiction have tended to be wary of expressing even the most sparing of emotions, or of describing their characters' actions in any but matter-of-fact, purely descriptive terms. While the preoccupations of such writers may be with style or language which exists solely on its own terms, their work may also leave readers with a sense of emptiness, as if the act of reading has been transmuted into an exclusively intellectual exercise, emphasizing observation and analysis rather than identification and empathy.

For those of us who value fiction for its capacity for synthesis, its ability to combine intellectual stimulation and emotional resonance in a single package, it is refreshing and gratifying to come across work like Annie Dawid's in her newest collection, Lily In the Desert (Carnegie Mellon, 2001). Although each of Dawid's pieces is meticulously crafted, characters and situations revealed only through the gradual and subtle use of detail and language so carefully chosen that colloquialism and elegance can be discovered in a single sentence, the total effect is of an elemental vitality and warmth. Dawid's stories consistently display a resounding and unembarrassed preoccupation with the complexity of relationship, offering the reader a glimpse — sometimes dark, sometimes almost dazzlingly joyous —into the intricate workings of a variety of lives.

Dawid's range is so broad and generous that it takes her work beyond a comprehension of any particular class, gender, or lifestyle. Nor do the stories ever seem contrived or artificial. So gifted is she at penetrating human thought and interaction that she can spin from one point of view to another within a single narrative, neither missing a beat nor confusing her reader.

The collection itself is dedicated to her late father, and several of the stories are marked by the presence of a reserved, disciplined, rather bitter man, who expresses his feelings toward his loved ones only through a frigid generosity. "The Man Who Remained Upright" is written in the voice of a paterfamilias manqué named Isaiah Stern, who is compelled, by his youngest daughter's questions, to look back at the trenchant optimism of his youth as a refugee from the Nazis in Tientsin, China. "China in those days…" he muses, more to himself than to her, "…[was] glorious, a gleam of paradise to a man who has fled the horror and whose father was dying every day behind him in Germany; everyone I left behind would die. On the boat from Genoa I wanted nothing: just to breathe was enough" (Dawid, 78). And, having suffered the consequences of a second traumatic exile, this time from communist China to North America, Solomon, a character very much like Stern, appears in a later story as the younger brother of an ancient, ailing refugee named Moses, who was successfully hidden in France during the Holocaust, only to lose his wife to cancer long after World War II. Through Moses, Solomon's daughter comes to a deeper understanding of her father's life and personality, but as in most of Dawid's stories, which seem as fragile and open-ended as reality, the ultimate resolution of the piece is left for readers to discover and interpret for themselves.

Dawid's cast of characters spans a variety of ages, nationalities, genders and sensibilities. Her wanderers traverse continents for little or no reason; people collide with one another in France, Greece, China, New Mexico, San Francisco, upstate New York. A Palestinian lesbian meets her Jewish doppelganger in a Salt Lake City café; in the title story, a lonely, middle-aged man longs only for the company of his dog, Lily, during a suicidal drive through the snowbound Nevada desert.

In "On Crete," where "butcher stalls bled into gutters; rabbit carcasses grinned from hollow faces" (Dawid, 61), a nameless woman, who has lost her ability to speak after a brutal rape, finds unlikely consolation in the company of a German thief. She has gone to Crete "…to visit the palace at Knossos; I thought the myths might have something to teach me" (Dawid 64). Instead, she finds herself trusting the German, perhaps because of his voice, which is "rich and deep and as soothing as a tranquilizer" (Dawid 62). Heedless and silent, she goes off with him on an obscure motorcycle journey and helps him appropriate a stash of stolen icons. And again the reader is asked to invent the story's denouement and resolution, to consider whether it may indeed be myth which teaches the protagonist something important, the anonymous German a kind of Hermes who leads her back to herself.

Many of the journeys in Dawid's stories are made without anyone leaving home. A high school student reacts to her sister's murder; a housewife examines her husband's banal proscriptions against her own futile attempts at suicide; the adult daughter of an unhappy marriage is almost carried away by the wintry Pacific, only to be rescued by someone she despises. And many of the stories extend across decades; in "Whatever You Two Call Yourselves," a man and woman, both gay, maintain a long-distance friendship through mutual interests in food, movies, and friends, until it finally blossoms into a deep, life-altering love. "The Settlement" encompasses the intricacies of two marriages and two divorces, generations of children and their parents locked into an unforgiving dance of longing and recrimination. But Dawid's work never settles into maudlin familiarity; instead, each story ends with some sacrament — a simple touch, a glance, a moment of recognition, so perfectly yet subtly described that only a writer of great skill is capable of carrying it off.

In this, Dawid never falters. In exuberant prose, she demonstrates an unending fascination with and passion for humanity in all its twists and variations, without ever allowing judgment or reservation to alter the course of what she has perceived.