Death Valley by Melissa Broder

An author escapes her home life, dying father and chronically ill husband, by travelling to the desert to help her write her book. Her editor reminds her time and time again that her character needs transformation in order for the book to be successful and so, she is here searching. You start to get a sense of the slightly surreal nature of this book at this point because so far the book is the story of what is happening in the book.

She books into a Best Western hotel and decides to go out on a trail only to discover a large cactus that she can crawl inside and feel safe. In it she meets her father as a little boy and starts to understand him and how she can respond to him whilst in ICU. He isn’t responding to her in the way she wants, She being a little bit needy, because he is using all his precious energy to survive.

The second time she visits the cactus, she finds her father as a thirteen year old in it and a young child with a wheezing, asthmatic chest. This, it turns out is her husband, and she takes him onto her lap and rocks him backwards and forwards. Accepting and empathising with his condition.

Fairy tales have a rich tradition of ‘threeness’ so the third time she visits the cactus it isn’t there. The author, who is totally unprepared to be out in the desert, day or night, carries on determined to find it. When eventually she does decide to turn around and head home, she comes across a junction and has to decide which path to take. (Yes, it is that obvious in the book and it is meant to be.) Of course, she gets it wrong, ends up running out of food and water, breaks her ankle and like the countdown to doomsday, the battery in her phone is slowly running out.

This is the moment of transformation, when everything is at their very worst, it is just what the catalyst is that turns you. In this book her dad transforms into a giant bird that picks her up and drops her back down by some landmarks that she recognises and can then crawl back to the carpark and people who rescue her. First, however, she has to visit the cactus one last time and it is changing. (Yup, still quite obvious.)

Running throughout the story is the question of whether she should have a child – no conclusion is ever reached. Having read the book, I googled whether Broder had anyone who was seriously ill in her life because I have had and felt that she had summed it up perfectly. The fear and worry is as large and harsh as the desert, seemingly never-ending and escape is all you desire. It turns out that her husband has a progressive, chronic condition, which she has written about here, and so this book turns out to be very autobiographical. The book suggests an element of sex addiction although I am not sure that is what the article is saying. That part may not be autobiographical.

The use of a cactus as a device to help reflect on people prior to their illness is actually a really clever idea and once you see it as that, it becomes less surreal and more a journey into grief, depression and coping with long-term illness. It is also obvious from the writing that Broder is a poet. It is concise but beautiful.

A shred of silver light appears on the horizon. The sun. One small sliver and I’m instantly calmer. It’s a good drug. And it’s rising.

More colors come: a yolk of gold banded in saffron; a bluish atmosphere with puffs of pink. In the new light I see mounting hills carpeted in scorched brush. Behind the hills: increscent mountains.


This book is also very funny in parts, sharp-witted but kind. There is the on-going joke about returning something to Amazon with the goods constantly reappearing (how true) and then when you decide you might keep them, they end up returned, as they should be. And there is the fact that the author talks to all sorts of inanimate objects that at first you think is part of the surrealness of the story and then realise is just part of the author. Story and author: how do you separate them?

An unexpectedly enjoyable read.

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