That Lonesome Valley by Melissa Lee-Houghton

23rd Jul 2019

All lovers have something in common, something which ties them together. For Morgan and Florence, the dual narrators of the ouroboros-like ‘That Lonesome Valley’, that something is heroin.

Split across two sections, each told from the point of view of one half of the couple, That Lonesome Valley by Melissa Lee-Houghton is in many ways not an easy novel to delve into.

Its protagonists are unreliable, often frustrating and sometimes deeply unlikable, and the cyclical nature of addiction means that there is little plot progression.

Yet the deft use of language by Melissa Lee-Houghton — she made her name as a poet, and her mastery of the form often leaches into her prose, too — makes That Lonesome Valley a fascinating and, well, addictive read.

If you’re looking for a book with an anti-drug or moral stance, this is not that book. While both of the main characters are honest about the devastation their drug abuse has brought into their lives at times, there is a sense of inevitability about it.

For Morgan and Florence, the world is simply too cruel, intolerable or just plain tedious to truly consider any other form of living. Their dependence on each other and on drugs are an attempt to escape their surroundings and themselves. After all, why would people turn to drugs in the first place if not because the world feels impossible to live with sober?

While it’s too simplistic to call That Lonesome Valley a love story, these twinned obsessions form the spine of the book itself, with each section mirroring the desire for escape through devotion and narcotics back at the other. Indeed, often I was left wondering how much of their relationship would survive if the addiction which links them to each other so symbiotically was taken away.

For all it avoids taking an entirely condemnatory viewpoint, Melissa Lee-Houghton doesn’t shy away from portraying often-harrowing reasons addiction can take hold, the gruesome effects of withdrawal and the reality of everyday life as an addict.

Her writing is vivid and immersive, the endless grimy bedsits and the misery of the comedown sketched with startling clarity. Yet, to its inhabitants, the crux of the decision they have made (and of the book itself) is this: the often-bleak reality is the price worth paying for continued access to the dual desires that rule them — each other, and heroin.

Overall, though it’s occasionally a frustrating read (I have to admit I preferred Florence’s ‘half’ of the narrative, harrowing as it often was, over Morgan’s more introspective and somewhat self-absorbed section), That Lonesome Valley is beautifully written and not without a streak of hope.

There are moments of grace and tenderness scattered throughout the squalor, with the characters finding moments of joy and strength within a system set up to see them fail. Its cast of characters feel startlingly real, and despite its subject matter it avoids becoming either an apologia or a moral tract. That Lonesome Valley is a raw and honest book which will stay with me for some time.

That Lonesome Valley by Melissa Lee-Houghton is available now from Morbid Books