“Laureen Vonnegut’s debut novel is a brilliant tale of a woman running from everything she’s ever known… But instead of finding her ultimate demise, Lili stumbles across an oasis in the Western Sahara, a location ravaged by conflict and inhabited by some of literary fiction’s most compelling characters. Driven by the need for truth and the desire to continue living, Lili discovers that the only way she can find her way back into the world is by latching on to the fractured souls of this tiny outpost of humanity. A completely original novel, “Oasis” is a literary milestone.”
Strand Bookstore, NY
“The premise that Vonnegut tenders in this debut is gripping, and her Sahara comes to life vividly.” – PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“A woman is pushed out of a car onto the Saharan desert beneath the pitiless sun. A man drives off. Their conflict is so venomous Lili would rather die than get back in the car. Lili is not her real name, and Morocco is not her real home. Sold at age 12, she was shipped from her destitute Russian village down the Bosporus to Istanbul, then to Casablanca, where, six feet tall and inscrutable, she was kept like an exotic pet. Of the man she refers to derisively as “the Arab,” the reader knows little, except that he has money and that he acquired Lili at a bordello. Enraged and wary, Lili now finds herself marooned at a small oasis where a strange band of outcasts and schemers plan to defraud a trio of Russians in an arms deal. What ensues is an archly theatrical, sometimes poetic, always enigmatic tale of subterfuge and survival. By turns harrowing and farcical, Vonnegut’s high-strung desert drama, her debut novel, possesses a Felliniesque delirium, geopolitical knowingness, womanly wise toughness, and inexorable circularity.”
DONNA SEAMAN, Booklist, American Library Association
“In Vonnegut’s debut, we first meet Lili in the Western Sahara desert. She has been abandoned by her Moroccan lover/captor, who has purchased her from a Madame specializing in beautiful imported Russians trained to be docile “wives” to their potential buyers. Slowly, Lili unfolds her tragic history, which is interspersed with her present secrets and adventures with a cast of one-dimensional characters who adopt her into their odd communal oasis. In her attempt to find her way back to civilization, Lili becomes entangled in the wavering agendas of the runaway Ouma-Midhat and his wives, Fatima and Raja; the Spaniard Gabriel; and the unknowable “lunatic.” Her account is told in a pervasively melancholy, dreamlike narrative bereft of descriptive analysis of either the characters or the environment. The plot methodically unfolds to reveal a highly unlikely culmination, but it is skillfully woven together with elements of which Lili had tantalizingly informed the reader earlier in the narrative… Certainly, the style and scenes of this drama reflect Vonnegut’s experiences as a screenwriter.”
Recommended for literary fiction collections.
LAMIA DOUMATO, Library Journal National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
“New writing from and about the Muslim world.
I don’t normally read the quotes authors often put at the front of their books. I feel it’s rather like an opera having an overture from a different composer.
Had I done so this time, I would not have needed to ask myself whether LAUREEN VONNEGUT had been reading Paul Bowles, because there he is quoted right before the title page: “Things don’t happen, it depends on who comes along.” There is, it seems to me, much of Paul Bowles in OASIS, not just the Moroccan setting and the sparse prose, but also the feverish atmosphere.
Lili, originally Russian, sold into marriage to a Moroccan Arab, sees him expire from snakebite in the desert. She almost dies herself, but ends up, destitute, at an oasis where she becomes part of the peculiar group that lives there. The desert, the oasis, the tents hold many secrets, personal and political, which Lili unravels one piece at a time, while trying to prevent herself from unravelling at the same time. The plot’s underpinning — the political conflicts of the Western Sahara — might be a bit obscure, and the story also unwinds in an obscurantist, dreamlike and often nightmarish way. But it precisely the dreamlike narrative that makes this tight novel of less than 200 pages both gripping and interesting. ”
PETER GORDON, editor of The Asian Review of Books.
“An impoverished Russian sold into sexual slavery at 15, Lili, now 22, finds herself at the mercy of a band of Sahara oasis dwellers after abandoning her Moroccan “husband,” who dragged her into the desert on a murky business deal and was felled by a snakebite. Lili fears she will be hunted down and jailed because she refused to drive him to a hospital. “The Arab,” as she refers to him, repeatedly raped her, yet he also sprang for an education and fancy clothes.
Lili desperately tries to determine if her newfound desert companions are foes or friends: is a Spaniard really searching for a silver mine, and who is the mute “lunatic” who lives in the bushes and tends the camels? Does the Berber sell camels or land mines, are his two black-robed wives trying to poison each other or Lili, and is an Algerian runaway wife some kind of insurrectionist spy? The premise that Vonnegut (cousin of author Kurt) tenders in this debut is gripping, and her Sahara comes to life vividly. But Lili’s opacity frustrates, and her confusion comes at the expense of an underdeveloped plot. Readers not versed in the region’s political conflicts will find the motivations difficult to track.”
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (Oct)
“The Western Sahara – a place of danger, intrigue and great beauty. A territory ferociously fought over for decades by the Moroccans and the Saharans, state against nomad, for priceless desert minerals. An unexpected oasis, a Russian beauty, and the odd desert inhabitants who rescue her. These are the elements that conspire in Laureen Vonnegut’s fascinating novel, a windswept vista of a dusty, dangerous world.”
JENNY MCPHEE, author of No Ordinary Matter and The Center of Things
“Vonnegut writes with freshness and urgency about cultural identity and a lost people’s search for belonging. Timely. Savage and gutsy. A glittering jewel of a novel, as stark and brilliant as the desert itself.”
LIZA WARD, author of Outside Valentine
“Oasis is an original, disquieting, oddly gripping story of a woman who finds home in the last and least likely place. Her awakening to her own power makes for a memorable-and timely-debut.”
ALICIA ERIAN, author of Towelhead
“A surreal and beguiling fever dream of a novel. Vonnegut’s characters are indelible, and her talent is undeniable.”
MITCH CULLIN, author of Tideland
“Laureen Vonnegut has a voice that is unique and applies it beautifully telling a tale of the Middle East. When you finish this book you’ll pour sand out of your boots.”
PHILLIP JENNINGS, author of Nam-A-Rama
“Laureen Vonnegut’s Oasis is a stunning debut, a page-turner that is both literary and thrilling, not to mention occasionally bitingly funny. Vonnegut’s portrayal of the Sahara is both sensual and stark. You will find yourself immersed in the bizarre world of Lili, a most unusual but altogether human heroine, and the delightful assortment of misfits who serve as her hosts in the Sahara. Vonnegut’s mesmerizing prose and her keen sense of mystery will leave many a reader quite happily lost in the desert.”
LINDSAY MORAN, author of Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy
“In her sensual and suspenseful debut, Laureen Vonnegut creates a lush backdrop for her transporting tale of a woman breaking free from life as a captive and kept wife. Lyrical and spare in the tradition of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Oasis contains a cast of realistically flawed and tragically human characters struggling in the vast loneliness of the Sahara.”
ANNIE NIGH WARD, author of The Making of June
“Oasis is about a young woman, Lili, who is acquired from a bordello as a child by an Arab and kept as some kind of exotic chattel until her early twenties. Her escape from him plunges the reader headlong into the novel when she is thrown from his car and left to find her own way in the endless southern Saharan desert, under a blinding, baking sun. Bedraggled and with her sunglasses bent out of shape, Lili happens upon an oasis where she is befriended by some of the characters who live in a tented settlement there. It is the relationships she consolidates with them that form the central action of the novel.
Laureen Vonnegut’s debut is a magic carpet ride of a novel, richly imaginative and surreal. There is a complex plot weaving through Oasis, yet I tended to read it as a series of semi-connected short stories, that have in common the setting and a similar cast of characters. Bucharest resident Laureen Vonnegut portrays the extreme conditions of the desert (at one stage, Lili announces that she will spontaneously combust’ but she doesn’t say it to anyone in particular) and its environs extremely well, but it is the small, incidental scenes in which she excels, such as when Lili shares a table with a foreigner in an outdoor caf�, or when she rides through the desert on a recalcitrant camel. So inexorable is the heat and so ubiquitous is the sand that you can almost feel them on your body, in your face and between your toes.
Each of the characters have his and her personalities imaginatively drawn. I particularly liked the way ‘the lunatic’ was treated with the sympathy he deserves; the violence of the Arab the reader feels is never far away. The author has fun with Madame Mer, the teacher and keeper of the young women Lili had grown up with, a boorish yet comical character who imparts to the girls all the secrets she thinks men like and yearn after, including walking with a ten-dirham coin between their buttocks to perfect an attention-commanding stroll. ”
ANDREW BEGG Vivid Magazine
“ “Oasis” by Laureen Vonnegut is a complete and total change of pace. First of all, yes, she is related to the late Kurt Vonnegut. She is his niece. And she has written a half-century updated version of Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky”. The language is not equal to Bowles, but the strange, arid feel of the woman abandoned in the Saharan desert at the mercy of the elements and the people around her is totally reminiscent of that wonderful classic. Here we have Lili, a six foot tall blond Russian woman who was sold into slavery at the age of 15. She is left in the desert by her companion, who is referred to only as “the Arab”. She is saved from dehydration and death (or did she only dream it?) by a strange man. Still in a dreamlike state, she happens upon a bizarre group of outcasts at an oasis. Here, of course, the plot thickens! One conjurs up vivid and exotic images from Ms. Vonnegut’s writing that stay around long after one puts down this short novel. ”
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