by Catherynne M. Valente
Format: Trade paperback, 367 pages
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Cover Design: Carlos BeltranRelease Date: Feburary 24, 2009
Between dreaming and waking, beyond the end of the world and every space in between, lies the city of Palimpsest. There is only one way to get there. Those who achieve it are marked by a section of the city’s map, tattooed onto their skin after a single orgasmic night. It is a city of wonder, of color, and most importantly, of desires.
Four travelers find their way to this strange, fantastical city: Oleg, a locksmith, November, a beekeeper; Ludovico, binder of rare books; and the young woman Sei. They are all looking for something, something they cannot find in the waking world, a sister, a lover, a wife, and a sense of purpose. Will they find what they are looking for, or instead will they find themselves consumed?
First off, I have to admit I had trouble writing this review. Not because I didn’t like the book, but because Valente often writes in layers and metaphors so straightforward analysis is not easy. With her books, I’ve found it’s best to simply enjoy it and let the story carry you along.
Perhaps it might be best to first say what precisely a palimpsest is. The Oxford dictionary entry states that a palimpsest is “a writing material or manuscript on which the original writing has been erased”. Essentially, it is a manuscript made of parchment that has had its original writing scraped off for the express purpose of being reused. You’ll discover as you read, that this definition is one of the core ideas of the novel. The city does not exist in the same sense as we mean it in the real world. It is ephemeral, hiding like a ghost. It flees like the mist before the sun or a lover in the night. Its construction depends on the desires of those who desire it in turn.
The term palimpsest applies not only to the city, but also to the characters as well. None of the characters truly live in the real world. They exist, but are not a part of it. Sei skips work to ride the trains. Ludo is so absorbed in binding books he almost never leaves his house. Oleg has no sights for anything other locks, keys, and his sister’s ghost. November’s life is made up of only her bees and her brief encounters with others. Their desires or inability to find them are how they each end up in Palimpsest. For two of them it happens because they actively seek it or stumble upon it. For the other two, the search is almost thrust upon them as they lose something and seek to regain it. They are defined by their desires. They seek to be whole and reborn again.
Readers will quickly discover that desires and the actions produced by them are central to the novel. The people touched by the city almost without exception become obsessed with getting there as often as possible. The longing becomes so much a part of their waking world they’ll do anything to get there and stay there. The desire works both ways. There are those inside the city that yearn for those who manage to cross.
Speaking of desires and yearnings, I wish I didn’t have trouble connecting with the theme. I’m hardly a prude, but I have always had difficulty comprehending why people will do sometimes do everything and anything to achieve what they want. Maybe I’m too cut off from the world myself or maybe the metaphors go over my head. However, this is purely a personal reaction, and hopefully others will get more out of it.
Something else that will depend on personal reactions will be the level of sex in this book. It is never gratuitous, but it can be graphic. The amount of sex is logical if you consider that it is the most basic and most physical expression of desire. One additional thing to note: given how important sex is to the characters and their transition to Palimpsest, it struck me as odd that there was almost no mention of masturbation. There were one or two references to people crossing alone, however, after that it is not brought up again. I’m not sure if Valente did that on purpose or not.
One thing I’m sure many readers will enjoy will be Valente’s prose. It is a highly detailed and richly imagined prose that describes such wonders as metal bees, living trains, and houses that grow like trees. The author’s inventions often literally stretch the imagination.