July 14, 2010


is not for everyone. It’s voluptuous, purple, and imaginative to the point of vertigo. Its logic is that of dreams or surrealism. It moves slowly, and for long stretches leaves the reader floundering. Advocates of realist, Iowa School, write-what-you-know novels will despise it.

But for those who love night trains and beekeepers, locksmiths and tattoos; for those who love the words palanquin and persimmon and bibliomancy, this is the book you’ve been waiting for. You might want to peruse the street names of Palimpsest first: Hieratica, Seraphim, Zarzaparrilla, Coriander, Quiescence, Inamorata . . . Are you a citizen of this city?

Some of Valente’s previous works – including the two-volume Orphan’s Tales – can feel too heavy. Her sensual descriptions, untrammeled, can be cloying. This is not to disparage her abilities. It is hard to think of a living writer who possesses Valente’s raw talent and intelligence. She’s the heir of Angela Carter and Isak Dinesen. And she’s barely thirty.

Palimpsest feels like a writer finding her shape. The book is carefully structured: there are five parts, bookended by a “Frontispiece” and a “Verso.” Each part rotates among four characters, Sei, a Japanese lover of trains; November, a Californian beekeeper; Oleg, a locksmith; and Ludovico, a bookbinder. The sections are spliced with mesmerizing forays into Palimpsest – a city adjacent to, or behind, or under our world, whose streets you can walk only if you sleep with someone who’s been there (and, in a sense, Valente is inviting us all to sleep with her as we read the book). The fare is a tattooed map of the city. If you’re lucky, on your hip; if unlucky, on your face.

A few books – The English Patient, Justine, Housekeeping, Lolita – are impossible to hurry through. You want to make a space for them. You sigh, and look out the window, and murmur sentences. Palimpsest joins this elite set. It makes you want to have sex and travel and eat exotic food and write – all the best things.

No comments:

Post a Comment