Sunday, October 18, 2009

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente (5/5 stars)

Previous to this book I had read a short story of Valente's called "A Delicate Architecture" in the Anthology "A Troll's Eye View"; I loved that story and was eager to read a full length novel by Valente. This novel was absolutely wonderful. The imagery Valente creates is phenomenal, and the premise of the story is one of the most creative I have read in some time.

This is the story of four stangers. Oleg a locksmith that lives with his dead sister, November a beekeeper who is obsessed with her bees, Ludovico a rare book binder who loves his books above all else, and Sei a young Japanese woman who is enraptured by trains. All four of them have something in common, they all chance to meet strangers that they connect with and sleep with. Each of the strangers bears a spider-webbed map-like mark on their body. The four protagonists in turn find themselves with a black map mark and when they dream after the encounter they find themselves in the city of Palimpsest, a city that can full-fill all your dreams. For a while and at a cost.

This was a very creative premise. Basically the only way to enter Palimpsest is to have sex with a stranger. Then when you enter Palimpsest you can only visit the parts of the city that you have previously visited or the parts that are marked on the map-like tattoo of the stranger you sleep with. So, the more people you sleep with, the more parts of the city you can visit. But you can only ever visit in dreams; the characters spend a lot of the book trying to figure out how to stay in Palimpsest permanently.

Palimpsest is a city like no-other. Palimpsest is a character in herself, and often encounters the characters on their journey through her. Each of the four characters are all a bit ironic because they each have things they obsess and love over all other things, and they are not conventional things like people; yet, the characters are continually forced to enter into interactions with other people to enter Palimpsest at all. The plot and story are intricate and mysterious, and by no means straight-forward. I found myself loving the plot and loving the fact you have to constantly think and try to figure out exactly what is going on.

If you are the type of person who likes your narratives easily understood and likes quick straight-forward writing styles I would steer clear of this book. Nothing about this writing is straight-forward. Valente weaves intricate and luscious pictures out of the most mundane things. She brings everything so alive that you can picture it glittering and sparkling in your mind. In fact everything is detailed so delicately and deliberately at times the plots spins away for a while and you are lost to the environment of the book. Much of the beginning of the book and all of the scenes that take place in Palimpsest have a very surreal and dream-like quality to them. I thought they were beautiful beyond imaging, but if I wasn't the kind of person who likes being ale to image and savor every beautiful and glinting detail of the world, I suppose it might have been irritating.

Given the premise of the story, I should mention that although sex is pivotal to the story it actually isn't really involved in much of the story. The sex scenes are very brief and not gone into in great detail or even very explicit detail. Keep in mind all these characters love something and, in general, it is not people. The sex is used a vehicle to get into Palimpsest, as such, it is dealt with in that way. So, people who don't like sex in their books, should still give this a try as it is not a huge part of the story.

I loved this story to death. The writing was absolutely enrapturing. I savored every word I read. The story was incredibly creative and very interesting to piece together. People who don't like a dream-like quality to their books and who prefer straight-forward stories should steer clear though. Will I be reading more Valente? You bet! I would like to read everything she has written.

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