Lindsay Ahl, in her self-reflexive and at times hallucinatory novel Desire, tells the story of two Elenas, a mother and a daughter, whose pasts straddle the tricky border dividing memory from imagination. Daughter Elena grapples with the childhood memory of mother Elena’s murder in Kenya, an event that she may or may not have witnessed, an event that may or may not have even happened.
Shifting between present-day New Mexico (where grown daughter Elena works as an anthropologist) and flashbacks to seventies Africa, Desire is a ghost story where even the ghosts are haunted. Elena’s memories of the narcissistic and reckless Elena Monroe (referred to herein with surname intact) show a mother who loved her daughter as a type of hateful obligation. When Elena was nine, her mother looked at her palm and said, “You’ll never be loved, see there? You have no heart line. No heart line means that you’ll be just like me.”
This is the same mother who documented the aftermath of the Kenyan elephant massacres in 1975, when poachers killed nearly sixty thousand elephants. Elena Monroe’s husband, Dr. Sam Frazier—Elena’s stepfather— brings the family to Bamako, Mali so he can do follow-up research on the smallpox vaccine. After twelve days without word from her husband (he’s in the field without phone access), Elena Monroe gets bored (and horny) and takes Elena to Timbuktu via boat. She meets the effusive and obscenely affluent Forester Ecco, who moves them both to Kenya. When Elena Monroe drags Elena to photograph another elephant massacre, the two are caught in the poachers’ crossfire, and Elena witnesses— or believes she witnesses— her mother’s brutal murder. Elena’s memory becomes organized around the shock of the event rather than the actual event itself; subsequently, neither Elena nor the reader can be certain about the facts surrounding her mother’s murder. Did Elena Monroe die in 1975 and did Elena witness it? Or is the murder simply a traumatic by-product of Elena’s youthful imagination? If Elena isn’t dead, who is buried in her grave? As an adult, Elena returns to the scene of the presumed crime to investigate. But the “truth” as she’s known it is hard to discard, raising sticky questions regarding degrees of trueness. What, after all, is more true—an actual event, or an event perceived as actual? “I’ve been told I’m a stubborn person, not inclined to change my mind once I’ve decided on something. So if I decide, at the age of nine, that my mother is dead, seeing her live her life after the accident, and talking to her maybe every couple of weeks, is not really enough to make me change my mind.”
Ahl’s themes of abandonment (both real and existential) parallel the concerns of acuity, truth, reality and identity found in many French New Wave films, such as Antonioni’s The Passenger, which focuses on assembling an unseen death, and Blow-Up, in which a photographer reconstructs a murder accidentally captured on film. Desire is a similar exploration of the alienation and psychological torment that results when a personal narrative is built upon a fault line; it is about nature and the humans who seek to destroy it, about the traps we set for others and then fall into ourselves. Though the plot feels tangled at times, with prose that can seem occasionally precious, most of the book will leave the reader nodding and saying to herself, “So true. So true.”