book review: the desert sky before us by anne valente
Several years ago, Iron Horse published Anne Valente’s short story, “Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down,” about the connection between a school shooting and a series of mysterious fires. It was one of our favorite pieces ever – it was later anthologized in our Best of IHLR Anniversary Issue. Now, Valente’s second novel, The Desert Sky Before Us, is being released from William Morrow, and we couldn’t wait to read it.
When Rhiannon goes to the Decatur Correctional Center to pick up her sister Billie after six years of incarceration, she knows that things are not the same between them. Their paleontologist mother has recently died, and their father hasn’t visited Billie once in all of the time she was in prison. Both women have given up fundamental parts of themselves – Billie her love for falconry, and Rhiannon her racing career – and on that morning when Rhiannon waits outside the prison in the rain, neither knows exactly the secrets the other sister is hiding. But their late mother has set a task for them, Rhiannon soon discovers, and the two sisters set out on a road trip through the American west, visiting a curated list of coordinates, and wondering what their mother truly wanted them to find.
The structure of the book is unusual – instead of chapters, there are sections named by their geographical coordinates, and in between these sections are the abstracts of academic papers, each illuminating something about the narrative and the sisters’ quest. So many things are combined in this novel – the racing and falconry already mentioned, but also geology, paleontology, information about air travel, detailed constellation descriptions, and hints of the coming climate apocalypse – that it seems like it might be easy to forget about the human drama at the core of the novel. Ultimately, however, this drama takes center stage, giving the novel a surprising emotional resonance. When Billie asks Rhiannon about their mother’s final days, Rhiannon thinks of how fundamental the loss is, “a dropping out of every scaffolding the earth held.” Again and again, the novel returns to the themes of grief and lost potential, and to how to build a way forward when it looks like there isn’t one.
In The Desert Sky Before Us, Valente gives us two sisters struggling to build a new life after catastrophe, and she does it in prose that is at once clear and lyrical. Valente explores territory that feels both deeply familiar and completely new, and she draws connections between things that are seemingly unconnected, crafting a novel that surprises the reader with its complexity.
Anne Valente, The Desert Sky Before Us. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2019. 426 pp.