This is the first novel I’ve ever bought based on an Amazon recommendation and there was no-one more surprised than me that I actually liked it. It is a multifaceted, Technicolor dreamscape that you can really lose yourself in. Valente’s language is richly woven through wild imaginings of people made of bees, steampunk insects, war veterans whose lost limbs are replaced with those of animals.
Palimpsest is a city that people may visit in their dreams after having sex with another visitor. Once you have been there a tattooed map of Palimpsest appears on your body, you are thence a conduit to the location identified on the map for your sexual partners. But the visits aren’t dreams. They are real, all encompassing and gradually visitors become obsessive. Yes. A sexually transmitted city. Weird huh?
It isn’t erotica, Valente’s hand is precise in navigating her themes of obsession, intimacy and objectification. I especially like the way queer sex is treated and the relationships within the novel are rich and complex. This may be smutty, and disturbingly so, at times but it is far more than that.
I could be here all day unraveling themes in this dense novel, but I wanted briefly to touch on the ability themes because I found them fascinating. There is in Palimpsest the Veterans, who have lost limbs and had them replaced with animal parts. They also are unable to speak. Their sorrow comes not from their disability but from their enforced silence. The feeling of loss runs strongly through the novel. All the characters have lost something. One is mentally ill, but his hallucinations are treated not as an illness but as a visitation that his life feels empty without.
This probably isn’t a novel for everyone. It is almost kaleidoscopic. At times it is overwhelming; at times deeply distasteful. But I very much enjoyed the rich prose and themes of obsession, desire, “otherness” and identity. If I had to compare it to something perhaps Jeanette Winterson’s writing, or maybe Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but even those aren’t quite right. It is extreme literature. This one is highly recommended.
Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente: four and a half stars.
Read it when: you’re feeling weary in your soul, you need to escape to fictional caresses. Take it with a stiff drink and see your doctor if symptoms persist.