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I'm in love with this book. Seriously.
Palimpsest is my personal favorite for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel. There. I've said it.
I had read the short story version (an excerpt, in fact) in Ekaterina Sedia's Paper Cities a while ago and the force of the words had already amazed me.
Four complete strangers meet in a fortune-teller's shop, an amphibian called Orlande (echoes of Virginia Woolf?). Inside - I quote - are four red chairs with four lustral basins before them, filled with ink, swirling and black. These four strangers will sit in the chairs, strip off their socks and plunge their feet into the basins, holding hands - always under the eyes of the amphibian. She will draw a card for each of them, and - this is for me the most interesting part in the ritual - tie their hands together with red yarn.
This image reminded me, even though very slightly, of certain rituals in Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé, in which sometimes you must tie people with yarns in order to "amarrar o mal" ["have evil tied", in a loose translation], but in this case it was just the imagery that attracted my attention. And not only the imagery, but the consequence:
Wherever you go in Palimpsest, you are bound to these strangers who happened onto Orlande's salon just when you did, and you will go nowhere, eat no capon or dormouse, drink no oversweet port that they do not also taste, and they will visit no whore that you do not also feel beneath you, and until that ink washes from your feet - which, given that Orlande is a creature of the marsh and no stranger to mud, will be some time - you cannot breathe but that they also breathe also.
This will be pleasure and pain for the four strangers, whose lives alternate between dream and the "real" world. For Palimpsest is all too real, but it can only be accessed through dreams, and through sex with someone who had already been there before. The ink, that in Orlande's room was only in the strangers' feet, suffers a weird migration to other parts of the visitors' bodies, where they can be easily mistaken for birthmarks or ink smudges. But these marks are their passports to enter this elusive dreamcity, and at the same time the only bona fide way of recognizing each other outside the dream.
So the plot begins to unravel in front of us, showing the sad lives of blue-haired Amaya Sei, who is so in love of trains that she virtually live in them in Japan, Californian beekeeper November, falls in love with Xiaohui, a woman who already bears the mark and transmits it to her during their lovemaking, Russian locksmith Oleg, who knows every single thing about keys and locks but very little about his own heart, for he has a strange relationship of love and hate with the ghost of his dead sister, Italian bookbinder Ludovico and his quest for his missing wife Lucia, who has already emigrated to Palimpsest and maybe is forever out of his reach, but only if he doesn't know the secret ways and marks by which one can pass through the worlds.
Catherynne M. Valente reminds me of Gene Wolfe in her utter care for the words without at any moment letting go of the story - and what a good story it is! Some of Wolfe's stories as There Are Doors came to my mind while I was reading it, but also short stories like A Cabin on the Coast - sad, moving stories about to have and have not. All is love and loss in Palimpsest; this is a novel that crosses over genres as easily as their characteres do between worlds.
Maybe Palimpsest won't be a winner - who knows? It's all in your hands, Hugo voters - but it surely deserves to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Even though all the finalists are great novels (this year will be one of the hardest for the voters in the recent past), Palimpsest promises, since page one, a wild ride through a city of horrors and wonders - and it delivers, both through imagery and also via elaborate words, words that are a pleasure to read and no doubt were as pleasurable for Catherynne M. Valente to write. She's a writer in love with the written word, and you don't have much of it these days. She's a writer to cherish and treasure.