Tag Archives: Catherynne M Valente

Fact or fairytale: Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

deathlessThat 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.


Today in memorable opening paragraphs

“Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the shorn wheat, the earth bristling like an old, bald woman. The apple trees had long ago been stripped for kindling; the cherry roots long since dug up and boiled into meal. The sky sagged cold and wan, coughing spatters of phlegmatic sunlight onto the great and empty farms. The birds had gone, arrows flung forth in invisible skirmishes, always south, always away. Yet three skinny, molting creatures clapped a withered pear branch in their claws, peering down with eyes like rosary beads: a gold-speckled plover, a sharp billed shrike, and a bony, black faced rook clutched the greenbark trunk. A wind picked up; it smelled of clover growing through the roof, rust, and old, dry marrow.”

Deathless, Catherynne M Valente

Way to set the scene Valente. I’m halfway through this novel; mixed feelings on it all told. But I loved that curtain raiser.


Written over and over again: Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente

palimpsestThis 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.

Sound familiar? A version of this post first appeared at my old blog A Shiny New Coin.

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