There’s a peculiar art to writing a novel that’s as inwardly focused as Death Valley the latest book from author and poet Melissa Broder (Milk Fed). While the narrative thrust of the story is determined by its first-person narrator’s outward wanderings, it is what’s going on inside her heart and soul that delivers the real, satisfying emotional punch. To pull that punch off takes prose that’s both memorable and relatable, as well as a narrator with an inner life that is fulfilling both thematically and narratively. That Death Valley manages this is enough to make it a thoroughly engrossing literary achievement—even before factoring in Broder’s humor, gift for linguistic flourishes and command of character.
Broder’s narrator is an author who heads to a desert hotel to work on her next book, leaving multiple personal crises back home in Los Angeles. Her father is still clinging to life in a hospital bed months after suffering an accident, while her husband’s chronic illness keeps him largely housebound and seems to be strengthening. On a short hike through the desert, the narrator finds a giant cactus with a wound in its side that feels like a doorway worth stepping through. What happens after she steps into the cactus is, of course, an entirely new journey, but Broder keeps it just as relatable even as her narrator begins shaping conversations between inanimate objects and seeing visions of the past and future colliding in her mind.
Through the voice of our nameless narrator, Broder immediately and thrillingly carves out a personality that’s equal parts emotional and wry; wise and impulsive. Even when she’s simply walking the halls of a Best Western, we feel like we understand this woman and grasp how her mind is being pulled in multiple directions at once.
Rich with observations about the shape of stories and the ways in which we center ourselves even in the narratives of other people, Death Valley is an exhilarating meditation on death, life, survival and how we use stories to get us through it all. It’s a triumph for Broder and an intensely intimate ride for readers.