Book Review: Sex + Magic Realism = Palimpsest

The novel Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente is a beautiful exploration of desire: not only sexual longing, but also the yearning for a home, a family, a place to belong.

Briefly, it’s about a sexually transmitted city.

The narrative traces four characters who mysteriously enter an unknown city, cavort there, and wake up as though from a dream, returned to reality but filled with the memories and experiences of this haunting new city, Palimpsest. Desire drives them to try to return, and desire is the path they must take, for the only way to get to Palimpsest is to have sex with someone who’s been there before. All visitors are marked with a map of a section of the city indelibly tattooed somewhere on their body.

The book is most certainly about sex, as each character delves into new experiences with new lovers in order to try to return to the city. Reading the book is also a sensual experience, as Valente’s prose is lush and voluptuous, teasing the reader with titillating descriptions of impossible pleasures: drinking opium tea from the mouths of red-painted geishas, dancing with a lover made of bees, crawling to enter a dark teahouse, listening to heart-rending opera while blindfolded, dining on roasted finches.

Yet the book is not only about sex; it is more properly about desire, about what drives people to search out one another, or new experiences, or a new home. One character seeks his missing wife; another is haunted by the ghost of his dead sister. One woman is a beekeeper, trapped in her own isolation; another rides trains, looking for a sense of purpose beyond her mundane life. As their lives intersect, and span the gaps between our world and Palimpsest, their desires take them over. Sex and need and lust intermingle on their travels, unbalancing them and driving them more than halfway mad.

The book’s genre is difficult to classify; I tend to describe it as “magic realism” since that label is less likely to turn off mainstream readers than “fantasy” or “urban fantasy,” but it has elements of those as well. The dreamlike quality of the narrative does not in any way detract from the seriousness of its themes: home, family, longing, love, loss. Astute readers will notice many themes from folklore and mythology, such as fairy-tale imagery and mythical creatures. The intertextual references are simply part of the fun.

This novel is notable for featuring characters who go beyond the heterosexual binary (as heternormative assumptions traditionally prevail in speculative fiction). One character is openly bisexual; others identify as heterosexual, but in their frenzied quest to return to Palimpsest, they have sex outside of their normal boundaries. The fluidity of sexuality is one of the underlying themes of the book: as the characters explore the enticing landscape of Palimpsest, they also chart their own shifting desires. Oscillating between depraved and sublime, the sexual and sensual experiences depicted in the book are compelling and evocative.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to readers who are looking for something interesting and different, and who like to read about sex (which, since you’re on this site, I’m guessing you do!). I would suggest this book as a gift for a mature reader, or as a gift for yourself… I own the paperback, but since I’m always loaning it to friends, I just purchased the Kindle version from Amazon to read on my smartphone.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Wonderful – I hope you enjoy it!