Entering the Dream State: A Review of Hannah Lillith Assadi’s The Stars Are Not Yet Bells

“We revive the past and intersperse it with the impossible future. What has been and will be collide. Time does not move forward, but falls backward,” Hannah Assadi writes in The Stars Are Not Yet Bells. This novel asks the question of what happens when one’s life becomes a long, confusing dream, where the past and the present mingle in a maddening mashup of memories and sensations. 

Elle Ranier arrives on the island of Lyra, off the coast of Georgia, as a young bride in the 1940’s. The beauty of the island draws Elle in immediately: “The dunes here shimmer, white as snow. Wild horses roam, ancient and unapproachable as unicorns.” Spanish moss hangs from the live oak trees, the ocean kisses the unspoiled beaches.The violet water calls, and underneath the sea are strange, blue lights.

Elle has it all — a young, handsome husband named Simon, a beautiful house, a mink coat and jewels. What she eventually learns is that Simon prefers the company of other men. His family, aware of this preference, has sent him to the island to begin a drilling operation, mining the blue minerals from the ocean floor in the hope that they are blue diamonds. Before leaving New York, Elle convinces her lover, Gabriel, to join them on the island, telling Simon that Gabriel is her cousin. Elle and Gabriel remain lovers until Gabriel disappears, most likely drowned while searching for the elusive, blue gems. The loss of Gabriel is the defining event of Elle’s life, and sets in motion her decades-long struggle with depression.

Elle and Simon find a way to live together, raise two children, and put up a front as a content, married couple. Elle’s depression is treated with shock therapy by a psychiatrist in Savannah. Her treatment also includes taking a pill derived from the blue substance, called Caeruleum, mined from the ocean. 

Now an elderly woman, and diagnosed with dementia, Elle struggles to remember the narrative of her life as she sifts through her past and tries to stay anchored in the present. “Time has not yet learned of its own passing,” Elle says to herself. “I stare out the window and imagine all my most beautiful memories, stretching vast and deep as the ocean, shimmering blue as a mirage beyond the scrum of oak.”  Elle becomes increasingly drawn to the water, both as a way to submerge herself and as a way to reconnect with her drowned lover. She is awash in her memories like a person awash in the sea.

The island and the ocean are major elements in the novel, and Assadi is a skilled, lyrical writer of the ways in which water, light, and wind in the trees form the backdrop for the story.  As the family careens toward financial ruin, Elle disintegrates cognitively, but with moments of clarity and insight that perhaps only she can see: “Life diminishes our breath until we are but the size of a grave, and then less that that.”

Hannah Assadi creates a haunting image of life lived on an island surrounded by an unpredictable sea that takes what it wants while also drawing people toward it. Assadi does a terrific job of writing what it must feel like to be confused as one slips into dementia, mistaking what is real with what isn’t, and the reactions from and irritation of the family to her decline. The story, written in Elle’s voice, can occasionally feel disjointed, but overall, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells is a pleasure to read. 

The Stars Are Not Yet Bells
By Hannah Lillith Assadi
Riverhead Books
Published January 11, 2022
Paperback Published January 10, 2023