Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.
I love setting-driven novels. It sounds absurd – a place providing the thrust for a book? – but think The Night Circus. That was my first love, Palimpsest is my second.
The titular place is kind of like an STD and is passed from one person to another in just the way you’d expect, and you visit in your dreams.
“The frog pushes them out of her shop like a mother urging her children toward the coach on their first day of school: Never fear, my darlings! All these horrors are yours to survive!”
Images are placed before us: places I’d love to visit, places I’d rather never see, normal moments made beautiful for being what they are.
“She often felt that she chased the ideal cup of coffee in her mind from table to table… Every morning she pulled a delicate cup from its brass hook and filled it, hoping that it would be dark and deep and secret as a forest, and each morning it cooled too fast, had too much milk, stained the cup, made her nervous.”
We follow four characters as they make their away around and grapple with the world before them. If you demand a plot and answers as you read you’ll be annoyed and disappointed. But if you’re like me and revel in exploring a magical landscape you’ll love every word.
Valente adds just enough of the real world to ground the entire experience but the sections set in Japan ended up bothering me a lot. She’s obviously going for fact in her descriptions and while some parts are accurate (the Golden Pavilion was really burned down by a monk) others are way off base (the Silver Pavilion never got coated in silver leaf and the monks would never let it tarnish if it were). I could make a huge list but suffice it to say I got cross more than I would have liked.
The writing is worth it, though. My review isn’t doing the book justice so if you like The Night Circus get thee to Palimpsest, stat.
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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern