Saturday, September 11, 2010

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest is the story of a fantastic city reached only in sleep, filled with human-animal hybrids, ghost trains and living buildings. Four travellers arrive together one night: November, a beekeeper from California; Oleg, a Russian locksmith living in Manhattan; Ludovico, an Italian bookbinder; and Sei, a Japanese girl who sells train tickets. In their waking lives they have lost loved ones and no longer belong, but in Palimpsest they are thrown bewildered into wild love affairs haunted by painful memories. Valente shows us the city as a powerful intoxicant, a place of desire, imagination and revelation.

It’s a hard book to describe by plot because it is most of all an inventory of Palimpsest. Valente’s imagination is vivid, bold and endlessly fertile, and I enjoyed reading the novel as a ride through a strange place. The characters, unfortunately, are secondary to inventiveness so the fantastic city at times feels more real than these people. All the main characters are searching for ways to return to the city and finally to stay there. Initially the way into Palimpsest is only through sex with a stranger who has been there themselves, so there are a fair few descriptions of one-night stands. It’s never really made clear why sex with a stranger should provide access to Palimpsest, but those are the rules...

I felt the book would work best if it found the reader in the right mood; perhaps it needs someone to be longing for escape or feeling deserted to immerse in the baroque prose. For me, it half worked but I still felt the lack of characters in whom I could really believe.

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