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Book Review: Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente

(Goodreads page)

Back cover copy:

In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice introduced readers to the unique and intoxicating imagination of Catherynne M. Valente. Now she weaves a lyrically erotic spell of a place where the grotesque and the beautiful reside and the passport to our most secret fantasies begins with a stranger’s kiss.…

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night.

To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

My thoughts:

Objectively, I think this is a great book for a lot of reasons. Structurally it is very carefully constructed, the way the book is divided into parts and the parts into quartos, and the chapters alternate between this world and Palimpsest, and I found this construction interesting and effective. Prose-wise, it is beautifully written. Content-wise, it is important in that it represents a range of sexualities and sexual habits (and their possible repercussions) without judgement. (If I sound cagey there, it’s just that I’m trying to avoid spoilers, since the sex is a main plot device). I think if I had read this book as a teenager, that would have really struck me and stuck with me.

Subjectively, however, I didn’t fall in love with this book. I found it hard to connect with the characters, especially for the first half or so of the book, and although it did get better over the course of the book, I never felt truly attached to them. The most invested in a character I felt was to a secondary character, for about half a scene, where I did get that gut-punch sensation of yes, this, this is True (the scene with Lucia and Ludo in the tea house, when Lucia explains, for those who have read it). Also, in the chapters set in Palimpsest, I found the tone of certain sections quite pretentious (for a spoiler-y reason, so I won’t get into it), which was off-putting. And I guessed the twist/revelation regarding those sections earlier than it was revealed in the book, so that particular thread didn’t work for me.

I appreciated the Medieval encyclopaedic element, and manuscript element in general, since that is right up my particular nerd-alley, and I appreciated the themes that were throughout the book: locks, keys, ways into places, the power of words, the power of categorization, etc. But in the end there was something a bit too glossy or surreal about this book for me to really sink into and fall in love with.

It’s an interesting book, and there’s a lot that can be said about it. I’m glad I read it, and thank you to my friends who recommended it to me. Can anyone tell me whether Palimpsest is a good example of Catherynne Valente’s books as a whole? Is there another book of hers that I should try, or if this book wasn’t quite for me, does that mean her others won’t be either?