Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente

About the Book
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.

367 pages (paperback)
Published on: February 24, 2009
Published by: Spectra
Author’s webpage
I don’t even know where to begin with Palimpsest. When I finished this book I groaned, long and low. My husband wondered what was wrong and I just glared at him and said, “how the hell am I supposed to review this one?” It seems impossible. Palimpsest is one of those rare books that seems to transcend so many different boundaries we tend to heap upon books. It is a book that is meant to be savored with a shocking amount of depth and meaning that can easily pull a reader under its seemingly placid surface.
The more I explore Valente’s work, the more I am learning that this pure confusion regarding how to discuss her book(s) is her trademark. Her stories are never surface level. Valente seems to have one of those minds that plunges into the depths that many authors seem to shy away from. She doesn’t just tell one hell of a story, she also throws a few incredible morals and messages in there as well and leaves the reader to dig them out and dust them off on their own. What never ceases to amaze me with Valente is her shocking ability to strip away the masks people wear and expose the naked and vulnerable human soul in her characters. With Palimpsest, this struck me doubly hard.
Palimpsest reminds me of fine pottery, hand crafted, measured and turned out with startling precision. It’s an incredible vessel, which reads like poetry. Each sentence is hand crafted for the reader’s fullest experience. The prose are flowing, easy to become lost in and made specifically to pull the reader under Valente’s spell. Despite the fact that this is a dark novel, the prose are so intricate, artistic and incredible that they seem to temper the darkness of much of the events that transpire. It’s just as easy to read this book for the pure artistry of Valente’s incredible writing as to enjoy the wonder of the story she crafted.
As with Deathless, Palimpsest is an interesting mix of plot driven and character driven. While the four individuals the book follows initially don’t seem to have interlocking stories, it becomes apparent, roughly halfway in, that their stories do weave themselves together and hinge on each other for proper progress throughout the novel. However, where I have a problem calling this a character driven novel is the fact that none of the characters are really anything more than passengers in the tale. Their stories are interesting and the reader will care about them and what happens to them, but it could easily be four different individuals you read about without any real damage to the story.
In many books this could be considered a negative, but not in Palimpsest. In fact, in Palimpsest, I believe that more character interaction and attraction would distract from the overall plot and harm the story more than help it. Thus, I think Valente struck the right balance between characters and plot. While all her characters are incredibly well rounded and very nicely done, they are like cheese and wine. Neither is necessary to the other for them to be fully enjoyed, but put together they spiral enjoyment to a new height.
One interesting aspect of Palimpsest is the dark; almost addict riddled sexuality that permeates the pages. While it is not overdone, nor is it frivolous, Valente used sexuality as the door between where the characters live and how they travel to Palimpsest. The sexual encounters quickly remind me of drug addicts craving a hit and Valente describes them as such in such an incredible voice that it’s hard to feel anything but pity mingled with some sort of latent disgust at these people who would hump anyone else with a tattooed map on them in order to get through to the city they all feel is part of them. While I don’t think that should keep anyone from reading this book, I do feel that potential readers should be aware that sexuality does play a strong role in the plot.
In the end, Palimpsest is so much more than the sum of all its parts. It’s a book about relationships, loss, family, discovery and wonder. It’s a book about a magical city that only exists when you are with that other (or those other) special someone(s). Palimpsest was an incredible read, and Valente’s prose was nothing short of astounding. Her prose, coupled with the incredible story she wove, turned Palimpsest into one of those rare reading experiences that marked me, just like the city itself marks those who visit its hallowed grounds. Palimpsest isn’t just a book. It’s a living, breathing creature with a special ability to hypnotize those who fall under its spell.
5/5 stars

3 Responses

  • Melissa (My words and pages)

    Oh great review! Thank you. You know I've read other reviews on the book, but didn't feel from most of them I got a scope more of the book. This is a great review. Thank you!

  • Jared

    Ooooh. Another rare point of disagreement for us. This time with Anne…

    As always, great review.

  • Kristen

    Fantastic review! This sounds lovely – I've had it in the TBR for a while but just haven't picked it up yet for some reason. I think it's because as much as I love Catherynne Valente's writing, I really have to be in the right frame of mind to read and digest it all. It certainly sounds like I have something to look forward to, though!

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