Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente

I love the word "palimpsest".  I like how it sounds and what it means.  When I read Nymeth’s review of this book, and she was all, It reminded me of MirrorMask!, I knew I had to get it.  Catherynne Valente‘s Palimpsest is about a city called Palimpsest, a sexually transmitted city – people have pieces of a map of Palimpsest, like tattoos, somewhere on their bodies, and when two people with the marks on them sleep together, they go to Palimpsest for the night.  Like a dream, except that it isn’t a dream.  The book is about four people who are bound together by their first visit to Palimpsest – November, Sei, Ludo, and Oleg – who want to leave the real world behind and go to Palimpsest forever.

Palimpsest gets off to a slow start, and the long, rather treacly descriptions of the different places in the city were a bit much.  It did remind me of the world in Mirrormask, or one of the weirder episodes of Doctor Who, but the kind of detailed strangeness that works in a visual medium can be too much when it’s described at great length.  Each of the Palimpsest chapters began with one of these long descriptions.  Some of them were interesting and cool, but some weren’t, and after a while my brain went on overload, and I started skipping them.  I think it would have worked better if these had been more character-centered.  Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludo are stand-ins for us, discovering the city as we do, and I would have liked to see more of their interactions with the city, with characters in the city, and with characters from the real world inside of Palimpsest.

I liked November best because she made lists – not dull lists but interesting lists.  Things which are gone in the morning: sleep, darkness, grief, the moon.  Women.  Dreams – and, Things that are left in the morning: memory, thought, snow.  Light.  Work.  Disease.  Dreams.  I like this.  Things that cannot long be kept secret: death in the family, the loss of a ring, corruption of the spirit, boredom, illicit love.  Sickness.  Addiction.  Pregnancy.  Lovely.  I love making lists.

The story is graceful and gradual and mysterious.  The history of Palimpsest unfolds slowly, with the stories coming to us from many different characters.  I like how it begins to fit together carefully, like puzzle pieces – the city’s past and present, while the four central characters come together to determine its future.  They all four have to find each other in the real world, in order to move to Palimpsest permanently, which is their most desperate desire.  Palimpsest wants them as much as they want it, offering them their heart’s desires in the city.

Actually that is sort of creepy.  It is like that Barbara Michaels book where the house wants to make the people happy, and it makes them be happy using its creepy powers.  Palimpsest shapes things for November and Sei and Ludo and Oleg.  They want to move there, of course, but the book leaves you to wonder whether this is what’s best for them.

Is it just me?  Is it not more creepy for a place to make people happy?  Than to make them miserable or insane like in The Haunting of Hill House?  I don’t know why I find this so creepy!

Other reviews: things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!), BSC Review, Reading the Leaves, Stage and Canvas, Scooter Chronicles, and let me know if I missed yours!

6 thoughts on “Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente

  1. November was my favourite too. I’ve yet to start reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, but I’m really looking forward to it. I know it’s not actually about November, but I’m excited anyway 😛 Also, I read this book over something like two weeks, and I think that taking it slowly was what made the descriptions not become too much for me.

    What you said about places that try to make you happy being creepy reminded me of The Thief of Always by Clive Barker. I need to read that again.

    • I’d never heard of The Thief of Always before – I looked it up on the ever-handy book blogs search, and it sounds like a much creepier Phantom Tollbooth. I’ll have to pick it up next time I’m at the library. I think if I try any of Valente’s other books, I am going to use your strategy of reading it over a nice long period of time.

    • I love MirrorMask – it’s one of my desert island films! But Palimpsest isn’t much like MirrorMask really; the alternate world of Palimpsest seems much bleaker to me than the world of Helena’s drawings. The similarity is that sort of drifting, dreamlike feel that it has for the characters. I could practically hear the MirrorMask soundtrack playing in my head when I was reading this book! (Though that may have been because Nymeth mentioned the two of them together, in her review.)

    • It sometimes sort of is – like when you go to bed in tears, and wake up in the morning, and things are looking brighter. Maybe she should have said sadness, rather than grief…or left it out completely.

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