“Things that are unsightly: birthmarks, infidelity, strangers in one’s kitchen. Too much sunlight. Stitches. Missing teeth. Overlong guests.”
Palimpsest is the story of a city that exists between dreaming and waking, full of living trains, mechanical bees, houses grown from trees, rivers made of coats, and other beautiful, ugly, wonderful, and dangerous imaginings. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that access to the city is achieved through sex, as four characters — a woman who loves trains, a man who loves locks and keys, a woman who tends bees, and a man longing for his lost wife — living in different parts of the world discover after chance encounters. As each one longs more desperately to reach the City of Palimpsest, they find they have to put them in increasingly compromising situations with a multitude of complications and consequences.
“Do not ask, he thinks, and tried to clench his throat around it. But the question is a lock and it seeks the key of her and he cannot stop himself, even though the taste of it is like the Volkhov, muddy and reedy and cold.”
The language in Palimpsest is often beautiful, poetic, rich and thick as honey. It’s perfect for the surreal other city of Palimpsest, though for the “real” world it can have feel of distancing, the focus more on the labyrinth of the words than on the characters. At the beginning, when we are just getting to know the characters, I think it creates a distancing effect, making them hard to relate to, their quirks feeling exotic and strange rather than relatable. So, I had a hard time with the novel at first, as it felt more like a complex poem that I couldn’t quite penetrate.
“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.”
After a certain point, though, when the threads of the characters’ stories began to come together, twisting through the labyrinth of Palimpsest toward the conclusion, I began to really enjoy the novel. I varied between needing to compulsively read and needing to take a break to absorb one or another beautiful phrase. While the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked, this was still a great journey and one I will reread in the future.