Review: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest – n.

  • a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.
  • something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

In the Cities of Coin and Spice and In the Night Garden 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 impressions:

It was a difficult book. There was a lot of sex in this one; mind you the novel could be hardly qualified as erotica. Sex here is just a way of escaping the ugly reality like buying a ticket to a better, nicer world, the world of your dreams. Of course you have to have sex with the right people – those with a part of the Palimpsest map tattooed somewhere on their body. It doesn’t matter you might see those people for the first – and the last – time in your life. Their part of the map means they agree, they understand and they have the same aim as you – revisiting your real homeland. That’s how, after a few initial encounters the eroticism  disappears and the characters are left with sex as a chore, a more or less arduous means to the end past the point of enjoyment, dreaded by them, exhausting, unwanted, painful; sex as nothing more than a quick and undesired interlude on their way to their obsession.

Palimpsest is a very exclusive location, a psychedelic city of a kind. You can’t stay there because such a permanent residency is reserved only for those who somehow manage to find and assemble the whole quattro of very specific ‘map people’ – those who at the very beginning visited the toad oracle together. It is a world out of your most grotesque nightmare – funny and weird, thrilling and gory. It’s like a trip after you take some drugs. I suppose that analogy is the best one. After all people in this book are addicted to Palimpsest as if they were real drug addicts. They lose weight, they don’t eat, they don’t socialize, all they want to do is to return there even though that place is hurting them, interfering with their real lives which don’t seem so real anymore. Wives leave their husbands, lovers forget about their love interests, diligent workers leave their jobs – all for the sake of returning to Palimpsest. After a while you ask yourself whether it is a blessing or a curse, having that ominous part of a map on your skin. Like in real nightmares it seems to be both.

Overall I have to say it was a wonderful reading experience, but also almost exhausting, since everything, every single character and thing was raw and on the edge.  everything was exaggerated, everything was painfully exposed and amplified. The words swirled, and so did the emotions contained in them. The disjointed and staggering narration, fading in and out like in a dream, I found both enchanting and oppressing, but, weird as I am, I did love the combination of those.

Final verdict:

After first several pages I wanted to DNF this one. Seriously.  The plot was barely there. A search for character development yielded little joy. Trying to make sense of world build was as useless as trying to teach a cat arithmetic. The narration was  haunting and floating like figures in a Chagall painting; the moment you try to untangle the web, the magic dissipates. Still Valente’s writing just has that something special that speaks to my soul, and I cannot resist it. So I persevered and I am glad of it.

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8 Responses to Review: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

  1. Melfka says:

    I own the book, but as much as like Valente’s writing, I couldn’t bring myself to read it yet. I guess I’m sensing I might not like this one that much.

    • As I wrote it wasn’t an easy read and sex scenes didn’t exactly help. Still I trusted the author to take me where she wanted to and in the end I wasn’t disappointed. Keep it for the time being and start when you think you want a more difficult novel to read.

  2. blodeuedd says:

    Good for you for reading on

  3. heidenkind says:

    Not sure I could make it through this one, although the premise does sound intriguing.

  4. Carole Rae says:

    0_0 OH NO YOU ARE TURNING INTO ME!!!!! I haven’t DNFed a book in forever…I make myself get through it even if it results in skimming the rest.
    Glad you didn’t give up tho. 😉

    • LOLOLOLOL bad company and all that jazz! Yes I usually have a lot of difficulties with DNF-ing a book even if it plainly deserves it. Well, this one wasn’t that bad.

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