Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I had to browse through other reviews of this book to organize my thoughts about it. Some people loved it. Others hated it. Often the reasons were the same. Very few reviewers felt the way I did.
Palimpsest is about a sexually transmitted city. It follows a quartet of individuals, all linked together upon their first entrance to the fantastical city. One gets there by sleeping with a person who's already been, and inheriting a tattoo, a small map of one of Palimpsest's neighborhoods, somewhere on one's body. To go back, a person needs to find another person with a tattoo, and sleep with that person. But is there a way to stay for good?
Our four heroes are Amayo Sei, November Aguilar, Ludovico Conti, and Oleg Sadakov. Their reasons for needing to return to Palimpsest are their own, but they share their experiences within it, smelling the same train tunnels Sei visits and feeling the pain of the bee stings November receives and tasting the delicacies Ludo gets to try. They inevitably meet others with their own relationships to Palimpsest, most clamoring for permanent entry.
The writing is incredibly sensual, and not just because the narrative forces the characters to sleep with many people. The sights and scents and sounds and tastes of Palimpsest are explained in more detail than anything in the "real" world all must return to when they wake. The sex scenes, by comparison, are cursory, a brief but necessary encounter. I spent most of the book wondering if they were meant to be idealized, or just something the characters endured to get what they want. Very few of them thought anything of their partners, and they were all aware they were being used to get to Palimpsest. The book, then, becomes a look into the extremes people will go to when they're addicted, just for one more hit, one more time. The book doesn't read as a paean to casual sex, but a warning.
Palimpsest works better on a metaphorical level than a literal one. As lovely as the writing is, there's very little narrative tension. There is a conflict, but its unfolding feels like an inevitability. It's less roller coaster, more lazy river ride. I understood the characters' various reasons for needing to return to Palimpsest, but I didn't feel them. They felt like an afterthought, tacked on to justify the narrative. Which is curious, because the characters show plenty of signs of emotional investment in their various causes.
Palimpsest introduces us to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. November, the catalyst for most of the action in the book, is inspired to pursue immigration to Palimpsest by her childhood love of the other book. Palimpsest was written first, or at least published first, which means Valente likely had to write The Girl Who Circumnavigated around the plot points she established in Palimpsest.
Love or hate it, Palimpsest will likely change the way a reader looks at the world. Reading only the surface means a reader misses all kinds of allegories and observations on human nature. It works best when one sits back to enjoy the lushness of the prose, and lets it work its magic.
I listened to Palimpsest on audio. Unfortunately, the narrator felt a need to reproduce the characters' accents, often to a cartoonish degree. As there's very little interaction between them, it didn't even serve to distinguish them from one another. It distracted from the narrative, and got annoying by the halfway point. I found myself cringing at several points, as some of the delivery struck me as racist. If I listen to this book on audio again, it will be with another narrator.
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