Miracle Monocle Reviews: Anne Valente

Recognizing Distance As Everything In-Between: A Review of Anne Valente’s The Desert Sky Before Us

By Andrea Pignato

Anne Valente’s work is unapologetically honest in the sense that it skewers its readers’ hearts with hard-to-swallow emotion. She’s created a name for herself with her powerful short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014), and her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow, 2016). Each work has shown readers how and why we so vehemently need to feel the world around us. Her newest novel, The Desert Sky Before Us (HarperCollins, 2019), is no different and surely upholds the legacy Valente is so beautifully crafting for herself with her words. Valente is known for toying with the plausible “what if?” while simultaneously presenting experimental outlets for deep, irrevocable emotion. She writes with a quick pace, one that glosses through the reader’s mind with ease, yet not without leaving a trace.

          The Desert Sky Before Us is an admirable piece of writing for several reasons: it’s a story about sisters, love, loss, forgiveness, and the understanding of one’s self. Then, in cohesion with all of this, it has an underlying layer of feminism and a depiction of the female experience that grabs the reader’s attention and runs away with it. The two main characters, Rhiannon and Billie, are sisters whose journey throughout the novel connects each of these themes seamlessly. Valente sends these two sisters on a journey west to deal with the grief of their recently deceased mother. However, it isn’t the journey they expect to make. Their mother has left them a scavenger hunt of sorts with specific coordinates for them to stop at along the way. The story begins with Rhiannon picking Billie up from prison and their first embrace after six years is nothing but hard and awkward. The weight of their secrets is palpable and the journey before them feels daunting and endless.

          What I found most fascinating about this novel was the way that Valente portrayed distance in so many different ways. There is distance in the literal sense—distance stretching across states. Yet there is also the distance between two sisters who are sitting right next to each other, between each character and their own identities, the distance of time, and the distance of a mother from her daughters through the most permanent separation one could think of: death. These distances are most evidently seen in the hesitancy that laces Rhiannon and Billie’s conversation as they embark upon their journey. Yet while the distance seems overwhelming at times, Rhiannon and Billie slowly learn how to close up some of the gaps and heal wounds that have been bleeding for many years.

          Nostalgia becomes a ghost that follows them along their journey and forces them to come to terms with their grief and with themselves. As the gaps are filled, the reader feels the weight of the distance that has held Rhiannon and Billie back. Their experience calls the reader to recognize their own distances, whatever those may be. Additionally, it asks the reader to acknowledge stagnancy as a factor in one’s life. As Rhiannon and Billie each find peace with their past, it is realized that purpose is subjective, and whatever your purpose is, it’s worthy. The specificity of each sister’s passion makes this evident and plays a major role in their ability to heal.

          Another fascinating aspect of this novel is the way it blends fact and fiction to create a story that is not only powerful emotionally, but also rides on the brink of that plausible “what if?” that I’ve mentioned previously. In unison with the internal family tensions that the sisters are dealing with along their journey, there is also a massive, detrimental external tension that weighs down the story from beginning to end: there have been consecutive plane crashes all over the globe. Seven plane crashes, to be exact, and the public is in a frenzy. And not only plane crashes, but drastic changes in weather that make themselves present throughout the road trip Rhiannon and Billie make. Valente works with this external tension to make an environmental statement that’s absolutely riveting. She pairs this tension with so many beautiful descriptions of nature that the reader can’t help but wonder, “what if this happened to our world?” and “what if this is already happening, but on a smaller scale?”

          The Desert Sky Before Us concludes with a stunning image of Rhiannon and Billie standing at the center of one of nature’s most wonderful gems. Secrets have been revealed, trauma explained, and readers can feel hope within Rhiannon and Billie’s future. This story is one that resonates; it’s the type of story you should read if you really want to feel something.

          The Desert Sky Before Us is now available for pre-order. Don't forget to read Valente's powerful essay, "Turtleshells," in Issue 12 of Miracle Monocle.

ANDREA PIGNATO is an associate editor of Miracle Monocle.