Palimpsest by Cathrynn Valente
Published: February 24th 2009 by Spectra/Random House
Source: local library (audiobook)
Synopsis (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.
I picked up Palimpsest because I really enjoyed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (review here), and I discovered that it was a story first mentioned in Palimpsest as a story within a story. I didn’t really even read the synopsis before requesting the audiobook at the library, and when I found it sitting on the hold shelf waiting for me, I was surprised at the words “orgasmic” and “erotic” in the blurb.
Palimpsest is certainly both of those things, but if those words conjure up images of grey ties and red rooms of pain a lá 50 Shades, you’re getting it all wrong. Palimpsest is sensual and sexy, lyrical and lush. Valente mesmerizes readers with her words, seducing them with her story. And it is a novel about sex, but it’s not romance novel sex or erotica sex. It’s literary rather than titillating or tawdry.
“To touch a person…to sleep with a person…is to become a pioneer,” she whispered then, “a frontiersman at the edge of their private world, the strange, incomprehensible world of their interior, filled with customs you could never imitate, a language which sounds like your own but is really totally foreign, knowable only to them.
But it’s also about more than just sex. It’s about loss and loneliness and a quest to fill a void.
The characters are all richly drawn, with unique backstories and compelling personalities. The novel is composed of vignettes that follow each character’s live, and how they are all tied together through their journeys to Palimpsest.
I’m shy about venturing into the sci-fi/fantasy adult section at the library. I’m intimidated by a lot of it. While plenty of the general fiction I read has fantastical elements, most of the adult fiction I read is still shelved in with everything else. Reading (or listening to) Palimpsest has made me think about my own prejudices, because it proves that truly literary work can be found is that section of the stacks.
This won’t be a novel for every reader. The meandering storyline will frustrate those who desire a more linear plot and the verbose and poetic writing may overwhelm those who prefer a more straightforward narrative. But those who are looking for a decadent urban fantasy novel with outstanding prose should check this one out.
The audiobook version was enjoyable, and I did manage to listen to the entire thing (which certainly hasn’t been the case with every audiobook I’ve tried). Still, despite the enjoyable narrator, this is one I would have preferred in print format. The dreamy prose and meandering storylines made it difficult to follow on my early morning commute, and I would have appreciated the language more having read it, rather than listened.
Worlds Without End: “Palimpsest manages to weave together strands from mythology and folklore into something so convincing you have a hard time believing it’s not real.”
Publisher’s Weekly: “In outstandingly beautiful prose, Valente describes grotesque, glamorous creatures sometimes neither human nor animal, alive nor dead, and mortal travelers who pursue poignant personal quests to replace the things (and people) they’ve lost. Valente’s fondness for digression at times makes for a difficult read, and her fable of quest and loneliness is less an engrossing fairy tale and more a meticulous travelogue of a stranger’s dream.”