Death Valley

Melissa Broder

Death Valley
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
United Kingdom
31 October 2023

Death Valley

Melissa Broder

The most profound book yet from the visionary author of Milk Fed and The Pisces, a darkly funny novel about grief that becomes a desert survival story.

A woman arrives alone at a Best Western seeking respite from an emptiness that plagues her. She has fled to the California high desert to escape a cloud of sorrow - for both her father in the ICU and a husband whose illness is worsening. What the motel provides, however, is not peace but a path, thanks to a receptionist who recommends a nearby hike.

Out on the sun-scorched trail, the woman encounters a towering cactus whose size and shape mean it should not exist in California. Yet the cactus is there, with a gash through its side that beckons like a familiar door. So she enters it. What awaits her inside this mystical succulent sets her on a journey at once desolate and rich, hilarious and poignant.

This is Melissa Broder at her most imaginative, most universal, and finest. This is Death Valley.


A woman drives out to a Best Western motel in the desert alone. A Best Western connoisseur, she is looking to find comfort and to remedy the overwhelming emptiness she feels. Her father is on life support in hospital, and her husband is enduring chronic illness and disability. A novelist, she is suffering from writer’s block and depression. Death Valley, Broder’s third novel continues on with some of the themes Broder explored in her book The Pisces and it feels like her most mature work to date.

As one might expect from Broder, the desert leads to some surreal twists; talking rocks and other oddball things emerge while our unnamed woman ventures out on a hike. A giant cactus appears and delivers encounters with the past. It’s never hard, in fact it’s fun, as a reader, to simply roll with the wackiness of Looney Toons scenes in the desert while our narrator wrestles with her situation. We are in turn treated to some really interesting thoughts about anticipatory grief and fear.

Broder’s books always surprise me, she works in territories that can be corny, but the narrator of Death Valley has a constant, fascinating and often hilarious inner monologue. Her mother is melodramatic, and even though her relationship with her husband is strained many of the funniest and most moving parts of the book are the scenes they share. Even when lost, poisoned and shitting herself in the desert our protagonist sees the humour of the situation resulting in a novel that is genuinely funny, frequently relatable, hopeful and perhaps even healing without being trite.

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