Death Valley by Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder's third novel is a blackly comic exploration of grief via cavernous cacti and talking rocks

Book Review by Terri-Jane Dow | 24 Oct 2023
  • Death Valley by Melissa Broder
Book title: Death Valley
Author: Melissa Broder

Following Milk Fed and The Pisces, Melissa Broder’s third novel, Death Valley, sees a woman arrive at a motel in the Californian desert, where she’s hoping to escape from the realities of her life for a little while: a comatose father in the ICU, a chronically ill husband who is becoming more and more reliant on her, and a looming book deadline.

Having purportedly taken this solo trip to work on her next novel, Broder’s meta-protagonist ventures out on a hiking trail where her path is blocked by a huge saguaro cactus, one that shouldn’t — and, as the motel staff insist, almost certainly doesn’t — exist in California. She climbs inside and is confronted by her father as a child, smoking and listening to records. If you thought you were getting a straight-up survivalist story, think again. Intrigued, she returns to the cactus day after day, eventually getting herself lost in her search for it. The second half of the novel becomes a fever dream, with friendly (and unfriendly) rocks for company, a desperate rabbit-chase, and surreal visions inside the husk of a cactus.

Death Valley explores different facets of grief and loss, and of confronting ideas you might prefer to avoid. Despite the heavy subject matter, Broder’s writing is sharp and darkly funny, blurring reality and imagination perfectly, and balances a protagonist who is both excruciatingly narcissistic and cringingly self-aware.

Bloomsbury, 24 Oct