Jul 27, 2009

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

How do I even begin to describe this book? Let me start by telling you what Palimpsest is: it is a sexually transmitted city. Those who have visited it will always carry the mark – tattooed somewhere on their body is a map of part of the city. And whoever they sleep with will also see the wonders and horrors of Palimpsest.

Palimpsest follows four main characters: Oleg, a Russian locksmith who lives in New York in the company of the ghost of his long dead sister; November, a lonely beekeeper; Ludovico, an Italian bookbinder who has built a sheltered world for himself and his wife Lucia; and Sei, a young Japanese woman who loves trains. All of them have lost something. And all have been initiated into the mysteries of Palimpsest, and dream of a way of emigrating to the city for good.

Does this sound strange? Well, it is, but wonderfully so. Palimpsests has one of the most unique premises I've come across, and it uses some of the most unique imagery I have seen in a long time. The city itself is absolutely fascinating – exotic, sensual, gritty, and haunting. Reading it I was a bit reminded of the world of Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask. Not that there are any similarities, but Palimpsest evoked similar images in my mind. Of course, this is just my Palimpsest. You are more than welcome to imagine your own.


But as much as I loved the world of this novel, it was the characters that sucked me in: their loneliness, their humanity, how much their stories made me feel. Theirs are stories of addiction, of longing and desire, of intimacy, of displacement, and of the sad and very human belief that something or somebody will save our lives, will give us back what we once lost. Their stories jolted something inside me, something I can’t quite put into words.

And then there’s of course the writing – Catherynne M. Valente is known for her unique use of language, and with good reason. The writing in Palimpsest is rich, lush and vibrant. It demands to be read slowly, but it never ceases to be enjoyable. It never feels like work. I forced myself to pick only three passages to share at the end of this post; otherwise I’d be here all day typing up half the book.

As you can probably tell by the fact that Palimpsest is sexually transmitted, there are several sexual encounters in this book. Most of them are described only briefly – we are only given the details of the lovers’ first moments together before the curtain falls. I suspect writing good sex scenes to be quite difficult, but Catherynne M. Valente does it perfectly. Most of all, I loved how well she captures the different emotional tone of each encounter: some are lonely, others passionate, others tender, desperate, intimate, sad. And each of them, just like each relationship in the real world, is unique.

A detail that made me love Palimpsest even more: the narrator seems to be an ordinary third person narrator, except it addresses the reader occasionally. Towards the end of the book, we find out just who is telling the story, and this adds a whole new dimension to everything. I’d tell you, but I don’t want to ruin your fun. Because you will read this book, right?

I love books that expand the limits of what can be done in fantasy, and this is one of them. You might be wondering, are there limits? You wouldn’t think so, would you? But as much as I love fantasy, I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of what’s published is a bit samey. And unlike some, I really don't think this is a necessary consequence of it being fantasy. Books like Palimpsest – and like Little, Big or The Love We Share Without Knowing, two books I was reminded of reading this – show us that this doesn’t have to be the case. And most importantly, they show us that fantasy can shed light on what it means to be human in unique ways.

Some of my favourite passages:
“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.”

“Living alone,” November whispered, “is a skill, like running long distance or programming old computers. You have to know parameters, protocols. You have to learn them so well that they become like a language: to have music always so that the silence doesn’t overwhelm you, to perform your work exquisitely well so that your time is filled. You have to allow yourself to open up until you are the exact size of the place you live, no more, or else you get restless. No less, or else you drown. There are rules; there are ways of being and not being. This sort of thing,” she gestured imprecisely at the room, the bed, him, “is forbidden. It expands or contracts me, I’m not sure which, beyond the…set limits. I’m not good at that, either. Expanding, contracting.”

Gabriel’s broken eyes welled up. “Oh, Oleg,” he said, “you don’t understand. Here, nothing means anything. It’s all just…random. Men and women and buildings and holidays and dinners and streets. It’s all flat. It’s like it’s missing a dimension deeper than depth. The dimension of ritual. There, everything means something. Even dinner. Even a time clock”. He laughed, and then coughed harshly, as if hacking back a sob.
Other Opinions
Scooter Chronicles
Stage and Canvas
Jenny's Books
BSC Review
Reading the Leaves

(Did I miss yours?)

Interview with Catherynne M. Valente at Fantasy Book Critic

The Big Idea at John Scalzi’s Blog

Also, I don’t normally post book trailers, but I think this one captures the mood of the book quite well. So here it goes:


  1. The quotes you left at the end of your review just...spoke to me. I can't explain it. I'm afraid to check whether this book is available in Australia as I will be endlessly disappointed if it's not.

  2. Hmmmm, OK. I'll tbr it. Looks very interesting.

  3. Wow. This one sounds quite unique. And quite special. The kind of book you can truly lose yourself in. One that demands your attention.

    As always, my dear, gorgeous, gorgeous review!

  4. I have to admit, I think this one is beyond my comfort zone. My mind spun just reading the plot description! :D

  5. Wow -- this is definitely different (and I mean that in a good way). It sounds like it pushes limits. I hadn't heard of this before. I wonder if the library has it.

  6. This sounds so good, I'm going to have to check it out!

  7. What an intriguing premise! I agree with you that fantasy can often get same-y, and I'm always looking for something different. I'll have to investigate this one.

  8. The passages you quoted are intriguing, but I'm not sure. As Amanda wrote, this one may be a little beyond my comfort zone...

  9. Hi there, thank you for stopping by my blog. I'll add you to my blogroll:) Hope to hear from you soon.

    Have a nice day,


  10. I read Valente's The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden a couple of years ago for Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge and loved it. Valente is so poetic, and of course, it was all myth and fairy tale. I'll keep my eye out for this one!

  11. I want it! I want it now! It sounds utterly fabulous, totally unique and weirdly wonderful. Going on my list now.

  12. I agree with Scrap Girl, this totally seems up my alley. I love books that push limits (done well, of course).

    I'm confused though. Is this a mixed media novel? You posted the illustration. Is that in the book?

  13. Yes, yes, I will read this :p You had me totally sold with "Palimpset is a sexually transmitted city". Then when you described the characters and said it evoked the same feelings as Mirrormask, well...yeah, I'll be reading this soon!

  14. Also, wanted to give you props Ana.

    clicky here


  15. This does sound unique - I'm not sure I totally understand it, but I'm sure I would if I read it.

  16. I just spent two minutes trying to figure out exactly how to say the title. Then I realized I was sitting here working out the title and moved on to the review! :) Just like the title, it sounds intriguing. It does sound really unique and I might have to give it a try. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  17. I have only read one Valente book previously but I really loved the way she structured it. I will be adding this to my TBR list and hoping that my library gets it in soon!

  18. This sounds like a wonderful book! My library does not have it at this point, unfortunately, but I'll put in a request. Meanwhile, it's on my wishlist. We do have two others by this same writer, The Orphan's Tales volumes 1 and 2 (and the subject headings for those are storytelling and magic, which is intriguing enough that I'm adding those to my tbr in the meantime). Have you read them? If not, sounds like you might have to!

  19. Crap! I guess that's what I get for being a bad girl and commenting at work. All our video capabilities are disabled, so I'll have to try and remember to come back when I get home because this book sounds AMAZING. Now, this is not something that I would pick up on my own, but I've added it to my wishlist. I'm really really intrigued!

  20. Aimee: I think I know what you mean. I hope it is available there!

    Care: yay! My work here is done :P

    Debi: A book you lose yourself in - that's exactly it :)

    Amanda: Fair enough - but keep it in mind if you're ever feeling adventurous :D

    Beth: I think it does push limits, yes. And I love that!

    Lu: Hope you enjoy it!

    Meghan: It's a pity when a kind of literature that is meant to be imaginative becomes repetitive. Fortunately there are fresh and unique books being written still, and I love helping spread the word about those.

    ds: It's probably not actually as strange as I made it sound :P Then again, I do have a high level of tolerance for strange.

    Andreea: Thank *you* for stopping by!

    Jenclair: In the Night Garden is on my tbr pile - after this, I seriously can't wait.

    Scrap Girl: Weirdly wonderful is pretty much a perfect description :D

    Christina: The image is from MirrorMask - fixed now, sorry! I added the info as alt text, but I forgot that not every browser shows it. And thank you again :D You seriously made my day.

    Chris: That's what it made me think of, but you may of course imagine it completely differently! I think you'd enjoy it, though!

    Bermudaonion: You definitely would. It's not confusing or anything...just bizarre in the best possible way.

    Becky: lol! I'm actually not sure either...but then that's true for at least 20% of the English language for me :P

    Marg: The Orphan Tales sound like something I'd love. I must read them soon!

    Darla: I haven't yet, but I definitely have to! I've heard nothing but great things about those books.

    Trish: Do come back for the trailer when you have the chance! It's wonderful, and I love the music that plays in it.

  21. I didn't even know people made book trailers! This is something to youtube for future book reviews...And this sounds like a super intriguing fantasy tale! It sounds very original. I've seen Mirrormask and it was definitely one of those movies where the feeling and images of it clings to you long after you've finished it.


  22. Wow. Wow. Wow. This sounds awesome. What an interesting concept! Your review definitely intrigued me, and I am writing it down at the top of my needs to be read list! Thanks!

  23. Sounds like one fascinating read! I've not read anything like this so I might want to read it. Thanks for the lovely review, as always! :)

  24. I put this aside for other books and haven't got back to it yet. I keep thinking I should read her other book first... We will see what happens when I work it back into the schedule. :)

  25. Sold! I love the idea of a sexually transmitted city leaving it's mark on you and everyone else you sleep with.

  26. You read the most amazing books Nymeth. Love the premise, so unique as you said. Definitely adding it to my wishlist.

  27. Oh my! Definitely added this to my wishlist!! Thanks Nymeth!! That trailer was great too =)

  28. Sharry: I only found out a while ago that they did. I'm not yet in the habit of watching them, but some are really very cool.

    She: yay! I hope you enjoy it.

    Melody: You're welcome! Tis what I'm here for :P

    Kailana: I guess this is one of those books that demands the right frame of mind! It took me like two weeks to read it, but I didn't mind.

    Rhinoa: I know! How cool a concept is that?

    Violet: I guess I have weird taste :P But yeah, it really is unique. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Kristina: Yes, wasn't it? Now I want the song that plays on it :P

  29. Darn it - I promised myself I wasn't going to read any of your reviews until I had finished reading all my library books, for EXACTLY THIS REASON. You always make your books sound so great - and this, um, sounds great. You just had to go and mention MirrorMask, didn't you? :P

    Adding to the list!

  30. Wow, I've never heard of a premise like that but it sounds amazing. And I can see just from your description why you would imagine the Mirrormask world. Going on the list!

  31. I just bought this book! I saw it while doing a random search on Amazon, and read the first page and was hooked. I am probably going to read it soon, and I am very glad that you thought it was good. I will let you know what I think when I am finished. Great review!

  32. This sounds sooooo good! I'll keep an eye out for it!

  33. This is a book I would like to read, I am making a note.

    It is truly a unique idea. Thank-you for the review, Ana

    Have a nice, very nice week-end :D

  34. Just when I think you can't outdo yourself in a book review, dear Nymeth, along comes a post like this one! this is a really good book review. Perfect. You tell who the characters are, and the premise of the novel, without giving the plot away.

    I have wanted to read this book - her other ones too- and now I really want to read it. You sound like you really loved it.

  35. This is one book I must get my hands on. Great review, Ana!

  36. Jenny: lol, sorry! :P

    Carl: I think you'd enjoy this! It's definitely a unique premise.

    Zibilee: Oh, awesome! I can see why you were hooked right away. Happy reading!

    JT Oldfield: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Madeleine: Thanks :D You too!

    Susan: Aw, thank you! And yes, I did. I want to read her others also - they're Mythopoeic winners, so we know we can't go wrong :D

    Alice, I hope you enjoy it!

  37. wow, this sounds unique! I'm adding it to my wish list.
    fantastic review.

  38. This sounds nothing like anything I've ever read. I'm going to see if it's at my library. Thanks for the great review, as always.

    diaryofaneccentric at hotmail dot com
    Diary of an Eccentric

  39. This sounds utterly amazing. I've read some of Valente's poetry, but I've yet to try any of her novels. I think this sounds like a wonderful place to start, so onto my Tiny TBR list it goes.

  40. This sounds so unique! And it's got a gorgeous cover.

  41. Everytime I learn about an interesting new (to me) author I immediately check them out on www.fantasticfiction.co.uk and so I did for Valente. Not only am I dying to read Palimpsest but also another of her books called The Labyrinth. Thanks for the awesome review :)


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