Catherynne M. Valente
Palimpsest Cover



I often find my reviews to be quite long and meandering, and in many respects this book is long and meandering. It's a book that asks you to take your time and wander around a magical dreamlike city wide-eyed and in awe. Alas, when I think of this book, I think the more I write the less I will do it justice.

Palimpsest is a novel about longing, of need, of desire. It's a novel about searching for what your heart needs, even if what your heart longs for isn't good for you. The vehicle for achieving this need is sex (and surprisingly not trains which feature heavily as a vehicle of choice for something else entirely).

Palimpsest is a hidden city, which may only exist in our dreams. It is accessible only by finding another person with a part of the map marked into their skin and having sex with them. When two people with a part of the city map have sex, they can in effect visit the parts of the city not only on their map, but on the map of their lover. So group sex, or sex with multiple people with different maps helps people navigate this city of dreams.

There seems a kind of shadow war of people having sex with people without the map on their body, thus 'infecting' them for when they visit Palimpsest in their dreams they wake with part of the map on their body too. Meanwhile, other bearers of the map on their skin actively stop people talking about the map, or trying to find each other. Who can access Palimpsest and who can't and how is a source of constant tension.

So we have an erotic novel where people screw themselves into fantastical dreams. All good right? Not really. It quickly becomes apparent that sex is the vehicle, not the purpose, and quickly joyous, sensual lovemaking becomes grubby, desperate and needy. Bodies become there to be used, and yet when people travel to the city of their dreams they both desire it so much.

Catherynne M. Valente is a wonderful writer. I read 'Deathless' years ago and promised myself I would read more and it has taken me such a long time to go back to her. What a long wait for something I have really enjoyed. Her writing is evocative, sensual, other worldly. At times I can feel the emotion and the need pouring off the page. Her erotic writing never feels unpleasant or 'mechanical', even during times where the act itself is base and desperate. At times my heart pulled, or I felt incredibly sad. At other times I felt the most tenderest of love, and others feeling desperation, and depression over what had happened.

It's the story of four characters all with something missing from their life, who search for that thing. It's a story that is tragic and sorrowful, as much as it is fantastical. At times it is a little difficult to follow a plot in Palimpsest, but so much of the novel is about interpreting what you want from it. Is it about sex? Love? Addiction? Consent? Is it about finding your family? The relationship between who, and what is ours? Is it about drug use and the euphoria of ecstasy and the inevitable comedown? Is it about STI's? Is it about immigration or just about trains? Maybe it is just about the beauty of human connection.

By the end of the book I felt I wanted to hug not just the central characters but the supporting characters too. I found I loved them and cared for them, even though I don't quite know why.