June 2004

Gena Anderson


Desire by Lindsay Ahl

Elena Monroe is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She’s in the first good relationship of her life and during sex she keeps flashing back to her childhood in Africa when her mother was killed snapping clandestine pictures of elephant poachers. Or, at least she tells people her mother is dead, but the gravestone that has her mother’s name on it (which is also Elena) doesn’t actually contain her mother’s remains. Desire, a first novel by Lindsay Ahl, creates a dream-like confusion around a plot that can only be described as meandering yet intriguing. Ahl starts her story in a New Mexico fast food parking lot and takes it through to New York and Africa, in a quick read that leaves you wondering if anything was really resolved at all.

The title of the book is taken from a Bob Dylan album that came out around the time these pivotal events were happening in Elena’s life. She listens to the album, and another Dylan album Blood on the Tracks over and over again in an attempt to spark some kind of understanding of her past. I did like the way the book used music to elucidate different feelings in Elena, sometimes triggering a flashback, and sometimes giving comfort. The music of the mid-seventies, such as the Rolling Stones and Donna Summer, play as big a part in the book as the main characters. When Elena goes back to Africa, the music she plays is as much as a trigger for her memory as the sight of her mom’s old gown, or the smell of her perfume. When the elder Elena, former African photojournalist, joins her, they can finally sort out the past.

Woven as a theme around the story is a look at the illegal and destructive ivory trade. Think Gorillas in the Mist, but with elephants. Ahl writes that in 1915 an elephant tusk could weigh up to 235 pounds, whereas now the average tusk is 22 pounds. Poachers play a big part in the economy, and the sale of ivory also allows the country to buy weapons. However, this overwhelming negative information about Africa is tempered with vivid descriptions of its geography, animals, and people. The tone avoids getting preachy, pointing out that everyone needs to earn money even if they have to do something illegal to get it.

Ahl utilizes the concept of a “soundtrack” for her book deftly, and does an articulate job of describing Africa and its dangerous beauty. However, the flowery prose and metaphorical language got exhausting after awhile. Elena is so confused throughout the book that you were never sure when something was really happening. I was waiting for the narrative to stabilize towards the end, when she finally figures what went on in her past, but she seemed just as unfocused as she was in the beginning. Basically, I was looking for some sort of resolution that never came. It was kind of like being drunk and watching the room whirl around you, hoping for everything to just stop spinning.

Desire by Lindsay Ahl
Coffee House Press
ISBN 156689154X
231 pages