And what an intriguing, lovely, bittersweet novel it is. The concept is that there is a mysterious, hidden city known as Palimpsest. In order to get there, you have to have a map - or a piece of one. The maps are tattoos, and only those with tattoos can travel there - and even then, only when they are asleep. In order to get a tattoo, you must have sex with someone who already has a map - and then you get your own, only it will be for a different part of the city. You can only go to those parts of the city that are on your map - or the maps of the people you sleep with. Yes, it is bizarre, bizarre and dreamlike - particularly the prose of the sections that are set in Palimpsest - but the ornate, baroque writing style suits those sections perfectly.
Our story focuses on four different people: a young Japanese girl who is obsessed with trains, a locksmith in New York City who is haunted by the ghost of his long-dead sister, a bookbinder whose marriage has unraveled, and a beekeeper who has withdrawn from the world. Each of these people is searching for something in their lives, but it is only when they discover Palimpsest that they gain a new perspective.
The plot focuses on each of these characters' points of view, alternating from one to the next in a nearly third-person narrative. I say "nearly" because the narrator has a voice of its own, referring to itself occasionally, and, through the course of the narrative, becomes a character in its own right. The story is skillfully woven through these various narratives, some set in the "real" world, others set in the dreamlike Palimpsest. The characters are gradually revealed in such complexity, with all their flaws, their hopes and dreams, that I came to care a great deal about every one of them as the story progressed. The book explores compelling themes and ideas: the nature of reality, relationships, death, power, solitude - even immigration.
It is fascinating to see how different characters react to the existence of such a city, and the way in which sex is often used as a means to an end - with varying results in the lives of those who long (or dread) to return there. Palimpsest is by no means a lovely fairytale world, though - there is sadness, violence and heartbreak, just as in our world, yet there is a vivid sense of wonder, despite the grotesqueness and cruelty of many of its inhabitants.
Here are some of my favorite passages, just to give an idea of Valente's impressive use of language to convey the dark, dreamlike world of Palmpsest.
One of the train stations:
The ceiling of Colophon Station is unpainted, for it was the desire of the architect, whose name was long ago buried under a black quoin, that passersby become aware in the most piquant way that they have passed underground. Therefore the roof of Colophon is planted over with flame-colored ginger flowers, whose thick golden roots reach down thirstily into the interior, and any traveler may look up and see only earth and straining roots, and the wonderful smell of it penetrates the skin for days afterward.The traditions and culture of the city:
For obvious reasons, the manufacture of ladders is a highly prized skill in this part of Palimpsest. It is a holy profession, each rung is possessed of spiritual significance. The first is the Rung of Honest Labor, and the last is the Rung of the Salt of Heaven. Between, each ladderer may stack his own path. If a rung should break, then bad luck infects the household, and at least one child must be adopted out to avert disaster. These are called Little Rungs, and tend to be swapped from house to house in a rough circle through the Aviary, as the quality of local laddery is never so great that they will not eventually return home.There was a great and terrible war in Palimpsest, and the veterans as well as the ill and infirm are taken to the sea in the hopes of improving their health:
Each evening the hopelessly ill are brought in gauzy palanquins to view the moonrise, and all applaud the appearance of its white disc over the water. The wind is considered to have such restorative power that surgery is performed on the each, anesthesia administered by waifish women with hair like spun sugar, who close their mouths over the ailing and breathe the vapors of their crystalline hearts into weakened lungs.Palmipsest reminded me of Mirrormask, too (Dave McKean's art as well as Neil Gaiman's other works), and also, in various ways, of other writers and artists that I love: H.P. Lovecraft, Italo Calvino, Patricia McKillip, the artwork of Nicoletta Ceccoli, M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali - to name just a few. The novel offers much food for thought, and while the overt sexual nature of much of the book may not appeal to some readers, that is only a small part of the areas it explores. It challenges readers to view their world - and their conceptions of things - in new and different ways. I am not at all surprised that Palimpsest has been nominated for a Hugo award - it is an impressive, thought-provoking, moving novel, one of my favorite reads of this year - and definitely the most memorable.
Ermenegilde has been a patient here since the war ended. She is a charity case; her reassignment went poorly and she was rendered useless for the field. She has bled from her wounds every day for twelve years. Bluebells drape her palanquin: the veteran-flower Medical gauze swathes her face in long bridal veils. All agree that if not for her mouth, she would be now a great dowager-beauty. But there is her mouth, it remains, and cannot be denied.
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Books, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
Jenny's Books: "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..."
Things Mean a Lot: "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."