That night, she burned all the books in the attic for heat. She carried them down, one by one, because December ate up her strength. She lit them in the stove while they all huddled around and put out their hands. Last one in was the Pushkin, and she cried, but without tears, because you can’t have tears without bread.
Part folk story, part history, part romance; Valente’s Deathless is a hard one to review. Our hero Marya Morevna has seen magic. And once she has seen it she can’t unsee it, “the face of the world had changed”. She lives in a long house in St Petersburg, which becomes Petrograd, which becomes Leningrad, which becomes St Petersburg again. The house is divided up among 12 families, because a comrade should have no more than his fair share, and Marya is daughter to 12 mothers. Until one day Koschei the Deathless knocks at her door and tells her to come away with him. And, because she’s seen the face of the world and she can’t unsee it, she does.
The act of living is to always be creeping closer to death. There is a war between the two, and the war is always going badly. Ultimately, in the land of death we are all equal.
Running the fairytale neatly in parallel with real Russian history of the 20th Century, Valente’s usual gift with words, heartbreak and dry humour is in full flight in this novel (see her opening paragraph I posted here). She creates a three dimensional, and historically accurate, world with myth and stark reality superimposed upon each other each comprising the weave and weft of a cultural tapestry. Aside from her beautiful, dense, unmistakably Russian-flavoured prose (though she isn’t actually Russian) the one thought ringing through my mind when I closed the novel was that it must have taken her approximately a century to research. So real is the changing political face of the human world Marya abandons, from Stalinist house elves to the siege of Leningrad. So convincing is the parallel as the Leningraders starve and fight and die, so too does the Tsar of Death gain the numbers in his army to overthrow the stronghold of the Tsar of Life.
This is the second Valente novel I have read (see my review of Palimpsest here) and I confess this one didn’t hold me in quite as firm a grip. All the same characteristics were there, her amazing deftness with the fantastic and the oh so real, but oddly it was the fairytale that bothered me. You know in the old tales when the hero has to go to three houses, in three towns, to speak to three old ladies, or complete three quests, or collect three whatevers or what have you? It became really irritating. Even as I knew it was part of the story’s structure, and that I was very naughty for doing so, I skipped whole pages of essentially the same story being repeated three times. That and the denseness of the Tsar of Life’s Kingdom, or perhaps something Russian lost in translation, made the novel feel a little stifling at times. A little claustrophobic. Like thick incense, rich and sumptuous at first but headache inducing after half an hour.
If you haven’t read any other Valente novels I’m not sure this would be the best one to whet your appetite with. But if you haven’t read any of Valente’s novels you’ve got bigger problems. You’re missing out on one amazing author. Fix that!
Deathless, Catherynne M Valente: Three stars.
Read it when: you want to take an adventure, you’re willing to have your heart broken.